Yeshayahu 42;1-17: Mashiach, and How Hashem Will Set the Stage for His Arrival

We’ve been away for several weeks, since the Chagim got in the way of Shabbat shiurim; I find it fitting that the chapter we’re up to starts with a discussion of Mashiach, but a Mashiach that will seem, even still today, unbelievably utopian.  As we’ve said before, the first step to reaching those times is allowing our imaginations to stretch enough to believe we can.

Verses 1-4: A Messiah for All the Nations

The end of verse 1 stresses that Mashiach will export justice to other nations. Rashi and Radak differ slightly on exactly how the verses describe this, so let’s take each separately. Rashi reads verse 2, that Mashiach will not shout, to mean he will have no need to admonish other nations, since they will voluntarily come to learn from him. What they will learn, as shown in verse 3, is to govern in such a way that the weak will not suffer, for the king will no longer steal from them or oppress them.  They will listen to Mashiach, running their countries on justice and proper treatment of all.

Radak differs on a couple of details. First, he thinks Mashiach will bring peace among the other nations—they will not only come to learn from him, they will (of their own free will) take his advice on how to adjudicate their disputes.  And he will develop strategies so effective that they will produce results without even the weakest feeling the pressure of his rule.

Sometimes forget to dream big enough.  Some of us may have lost sight of Mashiach altogether, but even those who still think of Mashiach, in my experience, might limit him to restoring a Jewish commonwealth, with a rebuilt Beit HaMikdash, a renewed Sanhedrin, and a government that follows Jewish law.  Yeshayahu is telling us that’s not all of it, that Mashiach is a redeemer for the whole world, not just us.

The next thirteen verses seem to me the path to that Mashiach’s arrival. A first step is remembering Hashem in His fullest power, which the prophet says will become known when Hashem brings the Jews back from exile.

Rashi on Verses 5-9: Bringing the Blind to See

Rashi reads these five verses as Hashem declaring His interest in rejuvenating people’s spirit.  As part of that, He has called Yeshayahu, whom He formed for this purpose (Hashem tells Yirmiyahu, too, that he was made for his purpose in life), to make a covenant, to be an אור גויים, a light unto the nations.

We often hear that last phrase quoted in the sense that Jews should set a moral example for others. We will see Radak say something along those lines, but Rashi thinks this is, first, directed at Yeshayahu, not the Jews as a whole. Building off the halachic fact that each tribe is, for some purposes, considered a separate nation, Rashi reads the whole “light unto the nations” as an internal national goal, not an external one.

Rashi sees Yeshayahu providing the light of memory of Hashem’s capabilities; the Exodus from Egypt should convince us that all the promises for future redemptions can come true as well. Until that happens, Yeshayahu says, we are like the blind, the imprisoned, those who sit in darkness—unaware of what’s available to us if we only work towards it.

Radak: Hashem as Master of the Universe, Master of History

In verse 5, Hashem calls Himself האל ה’; Radak reads that combined Name of Hashem as a reminder of creation from nothingness, with a purpose. For Radak, that is a recurring theme in Yeshayah, since some were claiming the opposite, that the world is eternal and/or arose by chance.  Yeshayahu’s job, per these verses, was to remind people of Hashem’s power, Hashem’s having destroyed Sancheriv (as the people of Yeshayahu’s generation had seen themselves), and to use that as assurance that Hashem would redeem the Jews in the future.

Whether or not there were such people in Yeshayahu’s time, there clearly were in Radak’s time (from the times of the Greeks, in fact). Radak reminds us that the denial of a purpose to the world, a Creator Who defines that purpose, and a special role for the Jews as the representatives of that worldview, is not new to any generation. It is old, and constantly part of what we are combatting in our efforts to bring the world to the bounty that awaits once we all get there.

His explanation of what being a “light unto the nations” follows that view.  Radak says the “light” is the light of Torah. So while he does accept the common reading that the verse is calling on Jews to act in such a way that non-Jews learn from us, it is not only in ordinary morality, but in all the truths the Torah asserts that others deny.

For Radak, Hashem is asserting His power, and calling Yeshayahu to bring all the nations to recognition of their Creator, to know that Hashem can and will take the Jews out of exile and return them to their Land. And to live lives that accept those truths for what they are.

Just Because You Use a Word…

When Hashem declares Himself in verse 8, and says He will not give His honor to others, Radak notes that other gods use the name Elohim, which can lead to some confusion about who God is. Hashem is going to put a stop to that, by taking the Jews out of exile.

All good, but the idea of not being able to tell God from god reminds us that idol-worshippers didn’t concede that they were worshipping something other than the master of the universe (or, a master of the universe). They used the same name as we did, and thought they just had a different version, a different view of how the world ran.

Our job is to remember that they can say what they want, but the gap is the gap. We worship the unique and unitary Creator; whatever they want to call whatever they worship, unless they accept all the truths we know about Hashem, they are not worshipping God.

Ingathering of the Exiles, a Worry for Our Times

Verses 10-13 speak of the “new song” the Jews will sing as they are gathered to Israel from the corners of the earth, the farthest seas and islands, fostering honor for Hashem. Rashi notes that Hashem is saying this will bring the non-Jews to concede that Hashem is in fact Master of the Universe. Radak adds that the inhabitants of each place the Jews leave to go back to Israel will accept Hashem’s rule.  Some purpose of the spread of the exile, for Radak, is that it widens the group of nations who will be brought to accept Hashem’s rule when the exile ends.

This piece of the text, along with a comment of Radak’s I omitted, cause me heartache.  Radak had said, earlier, that this whole chapter will happen after the war of Gog and Magog (to whom we will turn our attention again in a moment). In Scripture’s version, there’s going to be a major war, defeating those who go up against Hashem directly, after or along with which the ingathering of the exiles will lead nations of the world to concede that our tradition of Hashem is the most accurate one, that we indeed worship the one true God and have a relationship with Hashem going back to Avraham.

It is easy to read many of these prophecies and assume that WWII should be the war of Gog u-Magog—especially since it ended with an atomic bomb, fulfilling a striking prediction in the last chapter of Zechariah—and the ingathering of the exiles we have seen since then is this chapter’s focus.

All that was supposed to bring the world to realize the truths of Tanach and claims that we Jews have made for thousands of years. It’s sad for us that they don’t (and, worse, many of us still don’t) because it makes our lives harder, but it’s even sadder because it seems to doom the world to yet another war, yet another set of cataclysms that will bring us to accept the truth

Breaking the Silence

The last verses we have space for this week, 14-17, have Hashem speaking of having stayed silent forever (Radak reads it as for too long), and deciding to now call out, like a woman giving birth. Hashem promises to render mountains and valleys desolate, drying their grasses, rivers and lakes.  Hashem will lead the blind on paths they did not know, turn darkness into light, flatten barriers in their path, causing embarrassment to all those who insisted on relying on idols or molten images.

Hashem’s silence is captured in different ways. Avodah Zarah 3b has R. Acha telling R. Nachman b. Yitzhak that from the destruction of the Temple, Hashem has no laughter, citing our verse. Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael Beshalach (on the Song of the Sea) reads מי כמוכה באלים ה’, who is like you among the gods, O Lord, as אלמים, silent ones, that Hashem sees His children (the Jews) insulted, and stays silent.

For these sources, Hashem’s silence consists of a lack of laughter (an image that bears thought: we live, according to this and other Talmudic sources, in a time when whatever beauty we see, whatever joy, happens in an environment in which Hashem has no laughter—imagine the glorious world that awaits us should we merit seeing the time when that laughter is restored!) and a willingness to refrain from responding each time Hashem’s children are oppressed.

Bamidbar Rabbah 19;6 notes that the verse speaks of Hashem having already done what will appear in the days that He leads the blind to find Him, and quotes R. Acha’s comment that R. Akiva and his colleagues saw that which Moshe Rabbenu did not. R. Acha does not specify further, but he seems to say that despite Hashem’s hiding, these secrets were accessible to R. Akiva. Which implies that they are out there, for those who search well enough.

Bringing Mashiach

That last suggestion also brings together the various parts of the chapter—the way to a Mashiach who is a source of guidance to all the nations is for us to find our way to the pre-Destruction version of Hashem, before we silenced Him, as it were, with our sins.  If we act in the various ways the chapter suggests—finding ways to be a light of Torah to all our tribes and to the nations, to hear Yeshayahu’s words and free ourselves from the darkness we are in—the verse imply that Hashem is ready to set all these other processes in motion.

It is a future whose advantages we deny ourselves by wallowing in the prison of our inability to do that which is necessary. Despite the fact that all that seems necessary is our willingness to get up and do that which we are supposed to do.

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.