Yeshayahu 41:8-29: The Path To the Best Future

These 22 verses are split into four sections in the traditional writing of Yeshayahu; I mention that because the ease of using the chapter divisions (done by a non-Jew) can make us forget that the text itself indicates which sections are units of their own. Let’s take central ideas of each of these four sections and see where it takes us.

Taking Us Out of Exile as the Ultimate Consolation

Verse eight opens with Hashem addressing us as ישראל עבדי, Israel my servant, following verses speaking of Hashem’s taking us from the ends of earth, reminding us that He has not rejected us, will give us courage, aid and support and all those who contend with us will be like nothing.

Radak, as we have seen before, interprets this to be a promise to bring us out of exile, despite the assumption among the kingdoms that they could stop us from going.  The future embarrassment in verse eleven, for Radak, is their having to accept that they were wrong to assume that past results, the Jews not having left, predicted future events.

He does not tell us why this is of such concern to him, but his repeated interest in the Jews’ leaving exile seems to me connected to his living under Christian rule. Augustine, in the fifth century CE, articulated a view of the Jews as eternal witnesses of their “failure” to accept Jesus. They were to be allowed to survive but not thrive.

While on the one hand this was a sort of toleration, it also assumed Christians would always control Jews (and they re-read many verses in Scripture, including some we will come to in Yeshayahu, to reflect their worldview). It is easy to see how Radak’s focus would be on Hashem’s power manifesting in a way that proved them wrong.

Radak’s assumptions challenge any Jews who live in a time or place where Israel is more accessible. He makes it seem like all that was keeping the Jews in exile was the power of the ruling nations, who opposed their return. He may have recognized some technical difficulties in making the trip (as we’ll see in a few verses).

If the gates were open, the way was easy? It does not seem to occur to him people would choose not to go.  And that was eight hundred years ago, when Exile was yet young.

The Nature of Avraham’s Love of Hashem

One reason to have such confidence in Hashem’s caring for us, the verse seems to say, is that we are descendants of Avraham, who loved Hashem.  Being identified in Scripture as one who loves Hashem is a high and rare accolade; commentators offer several options on how Avraham achieved that. Since they’re not contradictory, they might all be true.

Rashi points to his coming to Hashem without any family background or personal life-challenges to lead him there. For some of us, family role models or life setbacks–financial, medical, relationship or other– can lead to introspection and a return to Hashem. Avraham had none of that, he just found his way there. For Rashi, that’s love.

Radak, perhaps in line with his concentration on exile, mentions Avraham’s leaving the idolaters among whom he lived.  Even though it was directly commanded by Hashem, Radak seems to see Avraham’s readiness to abandon  the homeland he knew, uprooting himself and his family from all that was familiar, as the mark of love.

Meshech Chochmah to Devarim 5;10 notes that in Guide 1;54, Rambam says Scripture only categorizes as being a שונא, as one who hates Hashem, those who worship powers other than Hashem.  That explains our verse; since Avraham was the first to make public efforts to eradicate alien worship (monotheists who preceded Avraham, as tradition has it, did not make the attempts he made to bring the rest of the world to that realization).

Ramban to Shmot 20;6 (a verse that speaks of those who love Hashem) defines it as those ready to give their lives rather than deny Hashem’s rule.  For all that this is a high level to reach, he sees it also as a technical obligation encoded in the commandment to love Hashem that we say in the first paragraph of Shema.

Avraham: a man who found his way to Hashem of his own freewill, who allowed that realization (and Hashem’s command) to move him from his familiar surroundings, who announced his faith wherever he went, hoping and trying to bring others to that realization, and who was willing to forfeit his own life (in Nimrod’s furnace) because of his refusal to acknowledge other gods.

That’s love.

The Thirst in the Return From Exile

Verses 17-20 speak of the poor and impoverished seeking water, Hashem answering them with newly revealed rivers and springs, making the desert bloom, so that they might know and realize that Hashem is doing all this.

Radak takes this literally. He says the way back to Israel from exile will involve crossing a desert (it is unclear what he means—living in Provence, a land route to Israel would pass through Turkey, some of which has the Syrian desert, but the shortest route seems to avoid that. On the other hand, if he meant boarding a boat to North Africa, the boat could just go direct to Israel and avoid any North African desert). These verses assure us that in that desert, Hashem will provide water. If we stretch a bit, we might imagine he meant Hashem would provide all our physical needs on the road back.

Rashi takes it in a surprising and enlightening, although less literal, direction. He relates these verses to Amos 8;11, where Hashem speaks of bringing a famine and thirst for the word of Hashem. But Rashi says that when that famine and thirst arrive, the Jews will initially not be able to find the word of Hashem; only when Hashem’s wrath recedes, as it were, will Hashem give them the bread and water they seek, namely the word of Hashem in the mouths of the prophets.

What should astound us is that Rashi he seems to think we don’t currently have דבר ה’, the Word of God. For all that we have the Torah, the dictated Word from Sinai, and Tanach, the inspired Word (at various levels of prophecy), and the Gemara, the record of the Oral Law, when Yeshayahu speaks of Hashem slaking our thirst (for His word, according to Rashi), that can only mean new prophecy.

The next section will give us one reason prophecy is important. Before we get there, I wanted to pause to notice that Rashi’s worldview was that Hashem didn’t want a world without prophecy, without continuing access to direct communication from Hashem, that was an outcome of who we were as a people (and, perhaps, have continued to be).  The model of life, for Rashi, was that we would always have prophets, who could bring us that Word from Hashem that was necessary and important for us to hear.

A Hard Thirst To Have

One of the preconditions, according to Rashi, is that we thirst for it. It doesn’t seem to be enough that we be ready to accept it, or even intellectually realize that it’s best for us. We have to thirst for it (and then wait for Hashem’s wrath to recede).

What’s hard about that—a topic that should be on our lists as Rosh Hashanah rolls around — is that the דבר ה’prophets bring is often that which we do not want to hear (it’s the false prophets who say exactly what people want to hear, that’s why they’re popular).

We get used to wanting what we want, and resent those who tell us otherwise. Prophets are in the business of telling us otherwise; the history is that we resented them for it, denied what they had to say, and sometimes persecuted them for doing their job.

So when Rashi says this verse and the one in Amos speak of a thirst for דבר ה’, that’s not a simple change, nor will it be easy to achieve. We’ll have to acknowledge that Hashem sometimes wants of us that which seems counterintuitive, objectionable, or against our instincts. We’ll have to accept those truths and act on them, not just out of duty or obligation, but thirstily, having reached the point where we know that if that’s what Hashem wants, that’s what’s best. And be excited to do what’s best.

Knowing the Past, Predicting the Future

The last nine verses of the chapter have Hashem issuing a debate challenge to non-Jews, only Hashem sets the terms: they have to tell the past and predict the future.  For “tell the past,” Rashi writes that they have to tell us what happened before Creation.

I find that interesting because in today’s scientific climate, before the Big Bang is considered off limits. For all the remarkable progress science has made in reconstructing evidence of what happened since then, before then is closed.

The second part of the challenge is, to me, more significant, because it returns us to remembering that prophets predict the future. As Rambam notes in a few places, the way a prophet authenticated him or herself was by making predictions, over and over, with all of the good or neutral ones coming true. All.  (That’s not true of negative predictions, because Hashem’s Mercy, as it were, means that those predictions might be changed).

It’s particularly interesting that that was the standard chosen, since people are now coming to realize just how hard prediction is. In 2005, a psychologist named Philip Tetlock published a twenty year study of experts making political predictions and showed how poorly they did (and the more high profile the expert, the worse his accuracy).

It’s hard to predict the future, yet prophets had a 100% accuracy rate. Yet the people fell into the trap of believing experts, over and over, despite their being wrong, over and over.

Our Achievements Blind Us to What We Do Not Know

Radak offers an alternate reading of the word עצמותיכם.  He and Rashi agree that the word means claims or arguments, so that Hashem is challenging the nations to bring their best arguments, their best claims, of the superiority of their worldview. As we saw above, the response to that it that they know too little about the world to predict future events with any accuracy, when Hashem can predict them with complete accuracy.

Radak mentions others who claim that it means הדברים העצומים שעשיתם בעולם, the amazing feats you have accomplished in this world. For that reading, it is our successes that lead us to assume we know better than Hashem. If everyone was struggling to get anything done, and Hashem was showing His omnipotence, the challenge of faith would be a smaller one. In fact, though, each generation of humanity accomplishes that which is  remarkable for their time (they build a tower, or an ark, cure a dread disease, discover/ conquer new lands, make beautiful art, make microwave ovens or air conditioners), and, often, for generations to come.

Where it goes wrong is that they then assume they now know how the world works.  In our times, the example that jumps out is scientists who make good, careful, and accurate advances in understanding the world, but then assume they know all the rest (such as, in my go-to example, Stephen Hawking writing in A Brief History of Time that if there is a God, he knows the limits on how God could have created the world. Mistaking an impressive reconstruction of what has happened, and of how the laws of Nature currently operate, with the limits on what Hashem can do).

For this reading, Hashem says bring all that, and use it to predict the future. If you really know how the world works, you should be able to.

Our Consolation

For us, we have reminders of Hashem’s connection to us, by virtue of our descending from Avraham. We have a model of love that, if we can bring ourselves to that level, shows us the way to a closer relationship with Hashem. We are told there will come a time when our thirst (for Rashi, anyway) will be for exactly that furthered relationship, in which we hear the word of Hashem, a Word, the last part of the chapter tells us, that can make the future clearer, that can help us walk forward with confidence, confidence that we know the major events coming our way and, bolstered by Hashem, know how to handle those times ahead.

Although I took this up as the next piece of our study of the end of Yeshayahu, its messages are easily applied to the coming holiday.  If we can absorb these lessons, of Avraham and the nature of love of Hashem, of developing the fullest thirst for the Word of Hashem, and of what that Word provides us, we can hope (and I do hope and wish to all of us) that we are well on our way to a כתיבה וחתימה טובה.

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.