October 25, 2008
26 Tishre 5769
Among the varied messages in this week\’s haftarah, Isaiah sought to arouse amongst his brethren an awareness that the painful exile had been brought about by their misdeeds and that only an awareness of this truth would bring about a change in their situation. This is Isaiah\’s intent in the following verse: \”Who was it that gave Jacob over to despoilment and Israel to plunder? Surely, it is the Lord against whom they sinned, in whose ways they would not walk and whose teaching they would not obey.\” (Isaiah 42:24)
Using this verse in its plot, the Talmud Yerushalmi relates \”a story about Rabbi Joshua who travelled to Rome. When he got there, they told him about a certain young man from Jerusalem, who was quite handsome with red curly hair [who had been taken captive by the Romans] and sold into slavery as a prostitute. Rabbi Joshua went to check up on the story. When he approached where the boy was being held, he quoted him the first part of the following verse from Scripture, waiting to hear the boy\’s response: \”Who was it that gave Jacob over to despoilment and Israel to plunder? Surely, the Lord…\” (Isaiah 42:24) The youth replied with the continuation of the verse: \”against whom they sinned, in whose ways they would not walk and whose teaching they would not obey.\” (Ibid.) Immediately, Rabbi Joshua began to cry and offered testimony before heaven and earth that he would not leave until he set the youth free. Whereupon, he bought the youth his freedom and sent him back to his home in Jerusalem.\” (Adapted from Yerushalmi Horayot 3:8 Venice ed. 48b)
Why did Rabbi Joshua quote this verse to the youth? Was it simply a code that the boy\’s captors would not understand? Actually the point of the quotation was more sophisticated than that, but in order to understand its intent, we must be aware of one of the preceding verses: \”Yet it is a people plundered and despoiled, all of them are trapped in holes, imprisoned in dungeons. They are given over to plunder, with none to rescue them; to despoilment, with none to say: \’Give back\’. If only you would listen to this, attend and give heed from now on.\” (Verses 22-23) Rabbi Joshua was asking the boy if he understood the reason for his fate and did he still identify with his people. If he did, then the fate mentioned in the verse no longer applied to him and he deserved to be rescued. (See J. Frankel, Darchei HaAggadah v\’haMidrash, pp. 247-249)
Rabbi Joshua read these verses, in a way, as a Divine answer to the youth\’s situation. The horrible fate in the prophecy only applied to those who did not take its message seriously. Those who heeded its message were exempt from its consequences. While we may not view the world in exactly the same way as Rabbi Joshua, still, there is something quintessentially Jewish about using the sacred texts as a reference point in our lives. It is one of the ways that God talked to the sages and it is one of the ways that we, too, continue our conversation with the Almighty.