Yeshayahu 40; 22-41;7: Unnoticed Ways Avraham is a Model

I started this unit to see how Yeshayahu defined consolation. We continue to see, this week, both that consolation is more available than we think, yet requires of us that which we, sadly, are too often unready to give. This time around, Avraham is the model of what we could secure if only we were willing to do what it takes.

Hashem’s Relationship to the World

40;26 urges us to look up at the heavens and see Who created all this, Who takes the stars out by number, giving them all a name (which means that if you go to any of the several websites that allow you to name a star for a fee, you’re actually giving it its third name, at least; there’s the one Hashem gave it, there’s the number the registry gave, and then you come along).

We may know this verse from Rashi, who cites it to explain why the early verses of Shmot repeat the names of Ya’akov’s sons.  Much as Hashem is described as counting and recounting the stars, Hashem counts and recounts the tribes of Israel.

In Shmot, the focus is the affection that shows in Hashem’s relationship with the Jewish people, but in Yeshayahu it is making us aware of Hashem’s relationship with the universe. Scientific theories of how the world started point to the processes involved and see them as unthinking and purposeless (refraining from speaking about purpose was the crucial starting point of the scientific revolution, focusing on describing what they saw, and the underlying order implied; sadly, many scientists have forgotten that and now move from what to why). Part of what Yeshayahu reminds us is that they may be exactly on target while missing underlying aspects.

Even Orthodox Jews who are open to the insights of the world around us will speak of Hashem as if He is just the force that started all this and keeps it going by providing the life force and energy that sustains it. I believe Yeshayahu is telling us that model is flawed as well.

Hashem may have created the universe by way of the Big Bang, may have put into place the laws of physics that are the general path for how the universe changes and develops, but Yeshayahu tells us that Hashem “knows” all those stars and galaxies, can count them and gives them names, a level of involvement we can forget to notice.

Questioning Our Troubles

Verse 27 starts a new section, in which Yeshayahu asks the Jewish people why they say their paths are hidden from Hashem, when they should know that Hashem is the Creator, Who never tires, and whose insight and understanding is unfathomable.

Each piece of this call rewards careful consideration.

First, Rashi and Radak interpret this as the Jews complaining about being ruled over by nations that do not know Hashem. In Yeshayahu’s time, that would have been the Assyrians, who were in the process of conquering much of the world, including the whole Northern Kingdom of Israel and all of the Southern (Yehudah), except for the miraculous salvation of Yerushalayim.  (Radak sees this as the Jews’ crying about the length of the exile; either he thinks Yeshayahu was prophesying about the future, or is saying the text could also refer to complaints about the length of exile).

Rashi sees the Jews as complaining about Hashem ignoring and failing to repay all the good they’ve done, instead bringing them troubles. For Rashi, Yeshayahu calls unfathomable Hashem’s holding off on our reward until the World to Come, using this life to erase all our iniquities through suffering.

Reward Can Wait, or We Don’t Understand How It Works

There are many difficulties in accepting that answer, but I want to focus on the self-image that leads to it. Rashi sees the Jews as taking for granted that their suffering is undeserved, unless we say that reward is being held for later, failings expunged now.

One of my early teachers, who influenced me greatly, Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, has written about the image Rashi and the Ba’alei haTosafot had towards the Jews of their time, how their instinctive assumption of the basic religious fidelity of their compatriot Jews shaped their approach to halachic questions.

Sometimes that self-image is accurate, but it seems to me that it is not always so. Radak, for example, took the Jews to be complaining about the length of exile without regard to whether it was deserved.  They just didn’t like the exile. I often wonder at when we look at ourselves and communities and see largely bad, largely good, or somewhere in between. And how right we are in that assessment.

Radak instead reads the verse as reminding us of how little we can understand about Hashem.

While this is philosophically more sound, it is also a reminder of how caught up we can get in all that we can understand, in all that Hashem has created in such a way that it is amenable to human logic and discovery.  Yeshayahu does not take away from that, unless and until our being enamored of our insight and intelligence leads us to question Hashem. Once we reach that scale of discussion, we need to remember that אין חקר לתבונתו, His insight (or understanding) are completely beyond us (a small example of that being that Hashem takes the stars out by number and gives them each names).

Renewing the Strength of the Faithful

Verses 28-31, the end of the section, warn us not to think Hashem gets tired (Radak says that was how some people explained the length of the exile, that Hashem had stopped paying attention, taking a little “rest”). Indeed, Hashem gives strength to the tired, power to the weak, whereas the young and currently powerful will stumble and fall. Those who trust in Hashem will find renewed vigor, able to run without tiring.

Rashi and Radak agree that the vigorous young in this image are the evildoers who oppress the Jews and/or oppose Hashem’s purposes in the world.  Often, they appear to us as if their power is everlasting and cannot be overcome, yet they will tire and fail.

This is hard to feel in real time, when the evildoing enemies seem so strong, with no way to resist or defeat them.  To absorb what Yeshayahu is reminding us of, we need to retain our historical perspective, to recall the previous powerful, all of whom seemed unstoppable in their time.  Greece, Rome, the Christians, the Moslems, the Almohades who forced Rambam and his family from Spain and then from Morocco, the Mongols, the Cossacks, etc. In my lifetime, it was the Russians, the Japanese (economically), the Chinese, the Russians again, and of course the Arabs, in their national (using oil for power) or terrorist forms.

It’s not like we can ignore them while they are around, but we also should remain aware of their ultimate failure, since they put themselves up against Hashem.  In reverse, those who love Hashem will find themselves being given renewed and ever-renewing strength —like Avraham, who chased four kings out of his belief in Hashem, chased them long distances (according to Ramban), and never ran out of steam.

Avraham: Coming From the East, Righteousness at His Feet

Hashem was the one, after all, who brought Avraham from the east, helped him conquer nations and kings, giving him the strength to chase them until he had defeated them fully.

Avraham’s two highlighted qualities, being brought from the east and having his righteousness at his feet, seem to be the reasons Hashem endowed him with such power. Hashem tells him to pick up everything and leave his homeland, and he does (a thought experiment: if a prophet came to you today and said you had to move to a faraway land, where you knew nobody and barely spoke the language, would you? For the example, assume this is a well-established prophet, so that’s not the question—would you be able to go where the prophet said, especially if the place was foreign to you?).

For righteousness at his feet, Rashi says only that his righteousness was with him wherever he went, meaning consistency of personality. For Radak, it’s also that he would attempt to bring his perspective of the world to everyone he saw. When he saw idolaters, he would try to show them the error of their ways, to speak of the Creator, and the paths of faith, unafraid of the consequences (such as being thrown in a furnace).

When Lot was taken, Radak has Avraham’s faith central to his decision to chase after the four kings. It wasn’t that he assessed the situation rationally and decided he and his men were strong enough to beat those kings, he trusted that Hashem would help him (he had the right to that trust, because of the lifetime of building his life around what Hashem wanted of him that preceded it).

Changing the Stars

On Shabbat 156a, R. Yehuda in the name of Rav reconstructs a conversation between Hashem and Avraham. Avraham says that his astrological future destined him to be barren.  Hashem tells him to go outside, which the Gemara reads as telling him to leave his astrology.

Those of us who don’t believe in astrology will jump to assume that Hashem is telling him that astrology doesn’t work, but that’s not what the Gemara says. Hashem agrees that Avraham had noticed that a star named צדקin the east, which would have shown that he was destined not to have children.  But we can read this verse midrashically to say that Hashem moved צדק from the east to the west, enabling Avraham to have children.

To translate to modern language: substitute genetics, medicine, meteorology, climate science, economics, international relations, sports statistics, or whatever we use today to predict the future, and the Gemara is telling us Hashem retains the power to change it. The star might be in the east, the genes might point in one direction, the medical future clear and obvious, but for an Avraham, Hashem can change it.

Lest we think that it’s only Avraham, Radak says that the prophecy is phrased in future tense to indicate that this will happen again to anyone who manifests the trust and faith of Avraham, who lives his life by what Hashem wants.

One of our goals should be to be like Avraham, to know and announce that we, too, worship the Master of the Universe, in the literal sense of being master of all, able to do all, including bring low the mighty and giving strength to the weakest of the weak.

The Neurotic Reaction to Hashem’s Promises

My father, a”h, was fond of the line that went “a psychotic thinks 2+2=5; a neurotic knows it’s 4, but can’t stand it.” The only aspect verses 4-7 for which we have room is their portraying the other nations’ reaction to Hashem coming and inserting Himself into the world. Rashi and Radak agree that when other nations saw Avraham, and will see our future salvation, instead of embracing the truths that we have articulated since the time of Avraham, they choose to fight. They fight by working harder at making idols (according to Radak), cooperating with each other to fight against us, hoping that by uniting, perhaps their joined idols will be able to defeat us.

It’s self-defeating, but not that different from what many of us do.  How often are we ready to relinquish longstanding practices that feel comfortable? Especially when accepting these new truths require us to give up our sense of control, to recognize that Hashem runs the world in ways we sometimes literally cannot fathom?

Part of how idol worship came about (and part of what many enjoy about science today) is that it provides a sense of security in a seemingly random world, where danger came unexpectedly from every direction. But one of the aspects of Avraham’s life Yeshayahu is celebrating is his surrender of all control (and security) to Hashem.

For many of us, and for the idolatrous nations Yeshayahu is contemplating, that’s unacceptable. To admit that Hashem runs the world, and can change even that which seems so basic to the world? Or that the Jews are Hashem’s special people, that their faith is true to the exclusion of all others, and that they will have to accept this going forward? They’d rather fight a doomed battle, and fight it to the death.

The Dark Side of Consolation

Having finished the first chapter of the 27 we’ll be studying, we’ve seen a first glimmer of consolation, Hashem’s ability and readiness to bring low the evildoing powerful, to raise the weakest of the weak to strength and power.  The difficulty is that the way to get there is to emulate Avraham, to construct lives all about Hashem, all about bringing Hashem’s righteousness and justice to the world, moving where Hashem tells us, trusting in Hashem even when it requires us to risk our lives, and carrying that belief and that faith with us wherever we go.

It’s the key to a brilliant future; we just have to take the key and use it. Which is easier written than done.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.