August 27, 2005
This week\’s haftarah is the second of seven haftarot of consolation (shiva d\’nechamta) which follow Tisha b\’Av. It opens with Zion\’s (Jerusalem, Eretz Yisrael, or Kenesset Yisrael – the community of Israel) painful contention: \”The Lord has forsaken me, My Lord has forgotten me.\’\” (Isaiah 49:14) God answers rhetorically: \”Can a woman forget her baby (ulah – spelled: ayin, lamed, hey), or disown the child of her womb? Though she might forget, I could never forget you.\” (Verse 15)
Rabbi Yitchak Abrabanel (14th century Spain) explains this exchange as a parable describing the painful relationship between God and Israel after a lengthy exile. The people of Israel feel betrayed and abandoned by God because of the pain of exile. Isaiah responds to this claim with a series of metaphors indicating that God will never abandon his people. The metaphor of the mother and her child seemed the strongest way to illustrate the strength of God\’s bond of love.
The rabbinic tradition developed a different take on this discussion: \”\’Can a woman forget her baby (ulah)?\’ Said the Holy One Blessed be He: \’Can I possibly forget the burnt offerings (olah – from the same consonants as \’ulah\’) of rams and first born of animals that you offered to Me in the wilderness?\’ [Israel] replied: \’Master of the Universe, since there is no forgetfulness before Your throne of glory, is it possible that You might never forget the sin of the golden calf? \”\’These [are your gods (Exodus 32:4) referring to the golden calf]\’ also will be forgotten [by Me (God)].\” Israel continued to ask: \’Master of Universe, since forgetfulness exists before Your throne of glory, isn\’t it also possible that You might forget my [the people of Israel\’s virtuous] conduct at Mount Sinai.\’ God responded: \’I won’t forget you.\’\” (Adapted from Berachot 32b)
The Sages, making a word play based on the fact that the words \”ulah\” and \”olah\” are formed from the same consonants, turned Isaiah\’s proclamation of God\’s continuous care for Israel into a dialogue over which of Israel\’s behavior God should remember and which ones He should forget. It is no longer a tale about the fear of abandonment and the promise of restoration, rather, it has become a parable about accommodation between two parties, God and Israel, who care very much for each other but realize that holding on to certain memories will allow them to continue their relationship while other memories will make their ties to each other more tenuous. The people of Israel are delighted that God won\’t forget the religious dedication of previous generations but memory also has its downside. If God remembers the people\’s virtues, He is also likely to remember their vices. This midrash informs us that God takes into account His love for us when he decides what to remember and what to forget. This admirable trait is worthy of human emulation.