This is the second to last week for this series on the comfort promised by Yeshayahu (there are 27 perakim after נחמו, Nachamu, and we’ll have done nine; I hope to return to this at some point in the future). This week’s selection, most of chapter 46 and all of 47, brings up issues we’ve seen before; instead of repeating myself, I’ll pull out those issues that are new (which will make this week’s essay shorter than usual).
They all revolve around the question of who does or doesn’t catch Hashem’s messages.
The first two sections we are dealing with, encompassing 46;5-11, open with a challenge to find some being to whom we can compare Hashem. As part of elaborating that, verse ten refers to Hashem’s being מגיד מראשית אחרית, predicting the future ahead of time (with no failure rates—as Rashi and Radak note, on these and upcoming verses, non-Jewish leaders/sorcerers/wise men also made predictions, some of which came true. The difference is that Hashem’s always come true).
Aside from the lack of failure, Bereshit Rabbah 16;2 and Bamidbar Rabbah 16;16 apply the phrase to names given to items long before those would be relevant. When Bereshit 2;11 points out that the river Pishon surrounded all of the land of Chavilah (a name that didn’t exist yet), the Midrash comments that Hashem says the future ahead of time.
Similarly, Bamidbar 13;25 claims that the river Eshkol got that name based on the spies’ having taken a cluster (an Eshkol) of grapes from there. The simpler answer would have been that it was named after Eshkol, Avraham Avinu’s friend. The Midrash comments that Hashem knew ahead of time what the spies would do, and therefore arranged for Avraham’s friend to be named Eshkol.
The Midrash is saying that Hashem’s predicting the future is more than just prediction—Hashem arranges the future so that it turns out as He wants.
A Responsive God
The last point for this section is Sifrei Devarim Ekev 43’s comment on why idols are called אלוהים אחרים, “other” gods. The Midrash says it’s because those gods are “other” to their worshippers, since they don’t actually respond to them, whereas Hashem does.
It’s a hard point, because we don’t have prophets, and these claims don’t always work out in our lives as clearly as Yeshayahu sees them. But what he’s saying is that Hashem isn’t a better God, Hashem is completely different from those other gods, in many ways. The ones highlighted here are the truth of Hashem’s predictions (which is hard for us to see, perhaps, because Hashem sometimes revokes earlier negative predictions, and because functionaries of other gods sometimes predict accurately), that Hashem responds to (some of) the entreaties of His adherents, and that Hashem moves important or special people from the east to come and influence the world as Hashem wants.
Mighty of Heart
Verse twelve calls for אבירי לב, the mighty of heart, to listen. Berachot 17b records a debate either between Rav and Shmuel or between R. Yochanan and R. Elazar as to how these mighty of heart, the extremely righteous, act. One opinion holds that the whole world receives its sustenance from Hashem as a charity, whereas the mighty of heart take their sustenance by force. The other view says the whole world receives their sustenance in the merit of these righteous, but they refuse to take advantage of their own merits (with the example of R. Chanina b. Dosa, who lived off a measure of carobs from week to week).
While that is sort of a debate, all those opinions agree that אבירי לב describes someone good. The Gemara then notes that this disagrees with R. Yehudah, R. Yosef, and R. Ashi, all of whom pointed to different non-Jews who failed to convert, despite seeing Torah in action in remarkable ways. For them, the “mightiness” of heart was the ability to ignore signals that should have led them to recognize the truths of Torah.
For the Gemara, great gatherings of people to study Torah and/or encountering great Torah scholars should lead people to see the truth that underlies their endeavors. To avoid it takes a damaging strength of heart. Our hearts can be strong in helpful or hurtful ways.
Missing Hashem’s Message
The first seven verses of chapter 47 envision Bavel’s downfall, it’s becoming a captive and servant to other nations, failure to realize that Hashem would redeem us, leaving it to sit silenced and humiliated, assured by Hashem that it will never return to its position of former power. Had Bavel paid attention earlier, Radak says, it would have known this was coming and might have acted differently, but it was so sure this could never happen to them, it did not.
Relying on Their Form of Knowledge, Instead of Hashem
The last eight verses of the chapter call for Bavel, the secure one, to realize that her downfall will come in but a moment, after which she will be bereft of inhabitants. Radak points to the events in the book of Daniel, where Belshazzar sees a hand writing on the wall; that night, he loses his kingdom.
Verse ten explains the root of the problem. The verse refers to Bavel relying on its evil, which Radak interprets as their having felt certain that their sorcery would help them, which led them away from seeing Hashem’s role in the world. There are forms of knowledge that seem so completely accurate in their day (back then it was sorcery; in later generations, it’s something else, each in its own generation), that we can come to rely on them to the exclusion of Hashem.
Commenting on Shabbat 156b, Ritva makes the point in a way that applies equally today. The Gemara tells of R. Akiva hearing a sorcerer’s prediction, and taking steps to try to avoid its coming true. Ritva wonders why he paid attention at all, since Jews are Biblically prohibited from consulting with such people. He answers that that’s only if we initiate the conversation; if a sorcerer approaches us, we can take note of the prediction and do what we can to avert it.
His list of what we do to avert it is different than ours might be, since he focuses on repentance and good deeds, actions that tear up evil decrees. While we might do whatever is within our natural powers to avoid the fate that sorcerers or other bearers of predictions tell us, Ritva reminds us of our obligation to relate it to Hashem, to include Hashem in the puzzle of how to move forward.
The Suddenness of Destruction
That explains why Hashem would make their downfall sudden. If it came slowly, the people could adjust to each stage as it came, explain it away or reconfigure their worldview to incorporate it (as in the apparently incorrect claim that frogs will not jump out of a pot of water heated slowly, because they become accustomed to the water as it heats up). Certainty of a worldview prevents anything other than sudden or catastrophic failure from shaking us out of it. What would make us change that which we are sure is true?
Which is true today as well—we notice when the world goes wrong, when life deals with us other than how we would wish. But how much are we willing to rethink? For Radak, Hashem is saying Bavel had become so attached to its way of looking at matters that it could not see life any other way.
Which is why they became Bavel, relics of history.