August 7, 2004
The opening verse of this week’s haftarah, the second of the seven haftarot of consolation (shiva d’nechamta), opens with a plaintive cry: “But Zion said: ‘The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.” (Isaiah 49:14) In times of personal crisis as well as in times of national calamity, it is a natural human religious response to feel a sense of being abandoned by God. This explains the outcry of the Jewish people in its desperation. God’s answer, in turn, was rhetorically definitive: “Can a woman forget her nursing child that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, these may forget but I will not forget! Behold I have engraved you upon the palms of My hands. Your walls are constantly before Me.” (Verses 15-16)
Still, this sense of abandonment has frequently haunted the Jewish people and its sages throughout history have searched for explanations for this existential crisis. In a series of midrashim to this haftarah, the fourth century midrashic collection, Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, records a number of different approaches to this question. The first attempt asserts that God has not abandoned His people. Rather, His anger at Israel’s sins has caused Him to temporarily disassociate Himself from them. Since, however, He has not forgotten them, His anger will soon be assuaged and His mercy will soon be upon them. (PdRK 17:1).
The next midrash makes a more audacious claim to explain God’s apparent absence. Like the first, the blame for God’s disengagement is placed on Israel and not on God. Our sins have caused God to figuratively become ill and consequently weak. This weakness makes Him temporarily unable to save us. As dire as this metaphor may sound, it leaves Rabbi Shimon ben Laqish optimistic: “If it is a matter of an ailment, there is hope, for in the end the sick person recovers, but if it is a matter of a change in character, there is no hope…’If it is a rejection, You [God] did reject us irretrievably, but You are only very angry at us.’ (Lamentations 5:22) One who is angry can always be appeased.” (adapted from PdRK 17:2)
Rabbi Levi admonishes his fellow humans for complaining about the situation at all. He holds that any human complaint against God is totally misplaced: “Why should a person complain to the One who lives for all ages? If one really wants to complain, then let it be a mortal who has sinned [who complains against his sinning. (17:3)
Bar Kapara seems more even handed in his explanation: “[Because the fate of Jerusalem affects God, it follows that] ‘My [God’s] fate is in your hands and your fate is in My hands.’ My fate is in your hands: ‘And your heart will become arrogant, and you will forget the Lord your God. (Deut. 8:14) And your fate is in My hands: “If I forget you O Jerusalem, may My [God’s!] right hand forget its skill.’ (Psalms 137:5)” (PdRK 17:5)
What do these explanations have in common? All of them approach the problem of divine alienation from humans by focusing on the human side of the equation rather than on the divine. Why is that? Perhaps it is because the sages are much more certain about themselves than they are about God. It also might be that they are much more conscious of how much really needs to be done to fix the world that they lived in. What is certain is that they had a profound desire to close the gap between God and themselves. For the sages, God’s willingness to reconcile with us is palpable. God is only waiting for our yearnings to be translated into action.
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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