(Isaiah 49: 14-51:3)
August 11, 2001
What did Isaiah mean when he encouraged the righteous few, who remained loyal to God even during the exile, with the following words: “Listen to Me, you who pursue justice, you who seek the Lord. Look to the rock you were hewn from, to the quarry you were dug from. Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth. For he was only one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (Isaiah 51:1-2)?
Moses Maimonides, the great 12th century Spanish sage and philosopher, chose this verse to illustrate how carefully we must interpret the words we read before we assume that we really understand them. He notes that the word “rock” can mean a number of different things. It can refer to a “mountain” or it can denote a “hard stone”. It can also refer to “a quarry from which stones are hewn”. It is this metaphor of the “quarry” which is used by Isaiah in his prophecy to represent Abraham and Sarah. According to Maimonides, Isaiah encourages us to “tread in their footsteps, adhere to their religion, and acquire their character, inasmuch as the nature of a quarry ought to be present in what is hewn from it.” (see the Guide to the Perplexed 1:16)
Elsewhere, Maimonides relates the story of the spiritual struggle which led Abraham and Sarah to an awareness of God: “While still a child in a world filled with idol worship, Abraham began to think day and night… striving to understand until he finally reached the truth…he perceived that there was only one God who governed the world and created everything and that no other God existed except for Him…He pronounced this truth wherever he went…” (see Mishneh Torah Laws of Idolatry 1:3)
Maimonides sees Abraham and Sarah as models of critical inquiry and judgment. Their search for truth began with the careful analysis of the things that they saw. They did not let the views of the majority sway them. Rather they let their discernment lead them to God’s truth. This quest was a religious journey which made Abraham and Sarah unique. Their religious vision represents the core of the Jewish tradition. It is the inspiration that fires the Jewish quest to understand the world that we live in and our relationship to God. It matters little that the truth may be found in the hands of only the few, for like Abraham and Sarah, the vision of the few ultimately became the blessing for the whole world. There can be no greater consolation than this.
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.
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