July 29, 2006
The opening prophecy of the book of Isaiah was chosen as the last of the three haftarot of admonition (tlata depuranuta) which precede Tisha B\’Av. In this prophecy, Isaiah calls the people to judgment for their sins and disloyalty to God. Isaiah reinforces his message with a call to the heavens and earth to bear witness to his message to the nations: \”Hear (shimu) O heaven and give ear (haazini) O earth, for the Lord has spoken: \’I have reared children and brought them up and they have rebelled against Me.\’\” (Isaiah 1:2)
This prologue bears profound resemblance to the introductory words of Moses\’ final poetic admonition to the people before his death: \”Give ear (haazinu), O heaven, let me speak; Let the earth hear (vatishma) the words that I utter!\” (Deuteronomy 32:1) Early on the sages recognized this similarity but were also aware that the verbs used in both verses were exchanged. The verb Moses used to command the heavens was used by Isaiah to command the earth and vice versa, the verb Moses used to command the earth, Isaiah used to command the heavens. Rabbi Joseph Kaspi, a 13-14th century Spanish philosopher and exegete, urges his readers to disregard this idiosyncrasy, noting \”there is no wisdom to be discerned in the interchange of Moses\’ words [in Isaiah\’s message] for these words (shimu and haazini) are synonymous.\”
Earlier sages, however, sought to find significance in this interchange. In Sifrei Devarim, one of the Tannaitic (Mishnaic period) midrashim to the book of Deuteronomy, sages tested out a number of possible interpretations of the difference between Moses\’ words and those of Isaiah: \”Another interpretation – \’Give ear, O heavens\’ – Since Moses was closer to heavens, he used the language – \’Give ear\’ but since he was far from the earth, he use the words – \’Let the earth hear\’. Isaiah came along used the words – \’ Hear O heavens\’ because he was far from the heavens and \’Give ear O earth\’ because he was closer to the earth.\’ The Sages said: The interpretation is not so. Rather [it should be interpreted thus]. When witnesses come to testify, if their words are in sync, their testimony stands, but if not, their testimony does not stand. So since Moses had said to the heavens: \’Give ear, O heavens\’ and then became silent, the heavens could have said: \’We only heard the testimony partially (haazinu and not shimu). And if Moses\’ had said only \’Let the earth hear\’, the earth could claim: \’I only heard the testimony partially (shimu and not haazinu). Isaiah came along to support Moses\’ words: \’Hear O heaven and give ear O earth\’ thereby giving both \’hearing – shmiyah\’ and \’giving ear – haazanah\’ to both heaven and earth\’. (Adapted from Parashah 306 – Finkelstein ed. pp. 333-4)
The later interpretation here assumes that there was an aspect of the testimony which Moses offered to the heavens and earth which allowed them to be only partial witnesses. Isaiah came and by inverting the verbs used for heaven and earth made their ability to testify complete. Now that the heavens and earth can fulfill their roles as \”kosher\” witnesses, that of course puts the onus on us to live up to our responsibilities and abide by God\’s will which is ultimately a message worth paying attention to as we close in on Tisha B\’Av.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp.
Rabbi Joel Roth, Rosh Yeshiva Emeritus .
Sponsors – The Conservative Yeshiva would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary: