Yeshayahu 45;18-46;2: Joining Hashem in Settling the World; Or Not

Verse 18 of chapter 45 starts a long section in the traditional text, spilling over into the first two verses of chapter 46.  Hashem declares Himself creator of the Heavens, former of the Earth, Who didn’t make it to be unshaped, unformed, but to be settled and inhabited. Aided by the readings of Radak and other traditional authorities, I think we can see that this verse offers a balanced view of where we as human beings fit into Hashem’s picture of the universe.

The Ancient Heresy

The first step of the verse is Hashem’s declaration of Himself, as it were. Radak reminds us (and notes that he has before) that his view was that Yeshayahu harps on this topic because the denial of an ultimate Creator was prevalent in his time; what ran the world, according to many, was the forces to which Hashem delegated (in Radak’s time, it was the celestial spheres; today, we would say it’s the laws of Nature).

Radak agrees that Hashem left the general running of the world to those forces, but that they operate by Hashem’s command and under Hashem’s control.  That means that it only makes sense to worship Hashem, Who oversees all of this.

While Radak might be accused of reading the heresies of his time back into Yeshayahu’s, it’s well documented that Aristotle believed in a Prime Cause who had no effect on the way the world works, and Aristotle is only about two hundred years after Yeshayahu. Whether or not it was a problem in Yeshayahu’s time (he may have been countering paganism, not mechanistic views of the world), Radak reminds us that it is a longstanding claim, made by the best minds of many generations, that Hashem doesn’t impact the world.

It’s a Control Issue

The topic was on my mind this week because I saw the movie The Theory of Everything, a presentation of some of the life of Stephen Hawking, known for his brilliance in cosmology as well as for his atheism. The title of the movie captures his desire to find the equation that brings together quantum physics with relativity, because that would explain everything.

It was not the first time it occurred to me that one of the motivators to atheism is a discomfort with lack of control. An agnostic sits on the fence, unconvinced by proofs for faith or against it, unwilling to commit until the truth is proven (that, too, is control issue, the refusal to take on a commitment until it’s completely proven).

But the atheist denies the existence of God, with no support for that lack of belief than that she or he has never seen God, has never seen a miracle that would prove God, and rejects the validity of the many traditions that point to experiences that would demonstrate God.

Radak reminds us (contrary to what many today would say) that this isn’t a new phenomenon, that it isn’t (as some see it) a result of the advances in science that have explained so much more of the universe. They go back to Yeshayahu’s time or, if Radak doesn’t convince you, Aristotle’s time. Because the desire to feel we have understood the universe fully, to avoid needing to accept a Creator above and beyond us, is strong in many of us.

We don’t like the insecurity of being out of control. Yeshayahu’s telling us to confront what is, not to fight against it, try to ignore or deny it, because it doesn’t change anything. If we instead accept it, we can find our place and role, where Hashem has left us (and wants from us) a positive contribution over which we do have control.

The Difference It Makes

Speaking of Hashem’s ultimate control can sound overly theoretical; here’s one practical difference. Those who believe in a world that only follow laws of nature speak in absolutes, whereas those who remember Hashem speak more cautiously. I believe speaking this way shapes our outlook more broadly, but the only way to see that is to try it. Some examples:

Doctors sometimes tell a patient they have x amount of time to live. What they mean is that the existing statistics and state of medicine indicate that if nothing out of the ordinary happens, the person has x amount of time to live.  When the CDC predicts there will be 1.4 million cases of Ebola by February, they mean if current conditions continue, as do predictions about how world weather will look in 2100.

There’s nothing wrong with predictions—they can help illuminate where our current actions are a problem, where we might be contributing to the desolation of the world instead of its habitation. But when we make those predictions too confidently, we leave out the element of Hashem. That also leads people to deny that there might be a course to history, which Hashem can and does intervene to protect and move forward.

Having Children

The importance of contributing to the habitation of the world comes up in the verse’s last phrase, לא תהו בראה, that Hashem wants a settled world, a world in which humanity has taken over the world and is doing its best to settle it in productive ways. This obligation has halachic ramifications, such as the case of a slave freed by one of his masters, mooted in Mishnah Gittin 4;5. Beit Hillel originally treated this as a financial matter, and ruled that the slave would work for his other master three days a week, and for himself three days a week.

Beit Shammai pointed out—and Beit Hillel conceded—that that fails to take account of the slave’s inability to marry (his freed half cannot marry a slave and his slave half cannot marry a free woman). Citing our verse, they argue that the world was created for us to have children, so that we force the remaining master to free the slave, to allow him to marry.

Similarly, Tosafot to Avodah Zarah 13a argues that the Gemara allows leaving Israel to study Torah or to find a wife because of the overriding importance of those two activities, citing this verse to support that claim regarding finding a wife.

Settling the World

While Chazal only address bearing children, it seems clear that the verse means more. For one thing, bearing children brings the requirement to raise those children to be productive members of society. More than that, the reference to לשבת means inhabited, not just populated. Radak takes this verse to mean that whenever world population drops, whether by war or disease (or famine), it is a sign of Hashem’s displeasure.

Putting that in a more positive context, Torat haMinchah Noach 4 cites our verse in the context of the Tower of Bavel.  While Rashi assumes that that generation wanted to storm the heavens, to show their power over Hashem, the text doesn’t say that. Torat haMinchah suggests instead that they were looking to do that which they say in the text, to have the tower be a central point around which they could build, never straying too far from this one settlement.

But that wasn’t Hashem’s plan. Hashem didn’t want one area of Bavel settled; Hashem wanted the whole world settled. Since their cohesion was distracting them from their purpose, Hashem helped them find their way back to the road to inhabiting the whole world.

That’s a responsibility Jews don’t share (all we have to do is settle Israel), but gives a valuable insight into the balance between recognizing Hashem’s ultimate power and our role in the world. For whatever reason, Hashem placed us here with jobs and tasks that are within our powers and our proper use of our freewill, such as having children, raising them as well as we can, and seeing to it that we and they work to inhabit the world as well as we can.

Should the World Have Known?

In verse19, Hashem says that He did not speak to us in private, which Radak takes as referring to the Giving of the Torah at Har Sinai. Surrounding nations must have heard about it, and passed word along to their neighbors, until the whole world knew of it. Had that happened, the whole world would have known of Hashem, would have known that the Jews are Hashem’s people, from whom they can learn how to act, and what Hashem wants of them.

The attraction of Radak’s claim is that it explains how Hashem can hold non-Jews accountable for their failure to do what Hashem asks of them.  Since they too knew of Sinai, of the Jews’ status as bearers of Hashem’s Torah, they should have known where to seek counsel.

The problem with Radak’s claim is that it makes too much sense—why didn’t the surrounding nations notice and record their impressions of Sinai? To some or many Jews, this conundrum weakens their faith, the reverse of how Radak saw it. My guess is that we see what we want to see, and refuse to see what we don’t want to. Belief in Hashem is threatening to many today, let alone back then. Accepting Hashem would have meant elevating the Jewish people to a special role, recognizing and accepting that role.  They didn’t want to.

That doesn’t take away from Radak’s idea that they should have known of Hashem and His commands since Sinai, and can be held liable for their failure to keep them.

The Charity or Righteousness Hashem Brings the Jews

In verse 25, the prophet says בה’ יצדקו, which Rashi takes to mean that the Jews will rely on Hashem’s promise of love and glory in Hashem’s protection. Radak reads it similarly, except that the Jews will glory in having stayed steadfast in their belief in the fulfillment of Hashem’s promises (specifically by taking them out of exile, a theme we’ve seen before in Radak).

Rabbenu Yonah takes the phrase in a different direction. In Sha’arei Teshuvah 3;27, he notes that many aspects of our personality depend on being aware of the need to strive for them (he calls this memory, but awareness might be a better term). In his examples, awe (or fear) of Hashem, modesty (in the sense of an appropriate privacy about our lives), making sure we only think proper thoughts. Remembering Hashem will help us achieve all of those, which is why the verse says בה’ יצדקו, which he’s reading as “through Hashem, they will become more righteous.” If we focus in the right way, remember Hashem the right way, we will improve ourselves.

To Mock Other Religion’s Deities

The last piece I have room for here is 46;1, where the verse refers to certain idols bending down. Rashi translates it as characterizing these idols as having digestive problems, unable to make it to a toilet (or the equivalent) to relieve themselves. This fits with R. Nachman’s note, Megillah 25b, that mockery is generally prohibited, other than of idols, citing our verse. R. Bechaya, Devarim 7;26, thinks that verse’s reference to treating idolatry as an abomination (as if it were vermin) creates an obligation to speak ill of any forms of alien worship, and gives Talmudic examples of changing the names of certain such idols, from laudatory to derogatory.

To us, it might seem odd or childish—shouldn’t it be enough to refrain from worshipping anything other than Hashem? Why allow or mandate the kind of mockery that we otherwise see as beneath us? I think the answer is that we are supposed to be making clear, to ourselves and others, that we cannot satisfy ourselves with disagreeing with alien worship, we have to be viscerally opposed to it One way to do that is by refusing to treat it with the politeness we offer others in our lives, those with whom we might disagree, but do not see as outside the pale.

Alien worship is way outside the pale.

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.