August 8, 2009
18 Av 5769
This week\’s haftarah, the second of the seven haftarot of consolation (shiva d\’nehamta) which we read on the Shabbatot after Tisha b\’Av, opens with an indication of the nation\’s insecurity over feeling abandoned by God. Isaiah responds by comparing the nation\’s relationship to God with that of a mother to her child. The prophet argues that a mother is unlikely to forget her child, but still, such a possibility exists; God, however, would never abandon His chosen nation since the nation\’s memory is, figuratively, engraved on God\’s hand. The prophet then attempts to present the people with concrete evidence of what this might mean for them: \”Swiftly your children (banaih) are coming; those who have ravaged and ruined you shall leave you.\” (49:17) According to this reading, the children of the exile would soon return, while its enemies would depart. Nothing could be greater evidence of God\’s redemptive powers. This interpretation was accepted by almost all of the medieval Jewish commentators.
This verse, however, is not as simple as this translation would have us believe. Throughout the ages, interpreters seemed troubled by what they saw as the thematic inconsistency between the two clauses in this sentence, as found in the above translation. On this account, Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, translated this verse differently: \”Swiftly they will rebuild your ruins; those who have ravaged and ruined you shall leave you.\” Since the word \”banaih\” can also be read \”bonaih – builders\”, the Targum brought symmetry to the two clauses of this verse.
The Targum was not the only commentary which interpreted this verse with this problem in mind. The Tanhuma (9th century midrash, Eretz Yisrael) took a different approach: \”One finds that heavenly Jerusalem is parallel to earthly Jerusalem. On account of the great love [on high] for earthly Jerusalem, [God] made heavenly Jerusalem, as it is written: \’On the palms of My hands, your walls are forever before Me.\’ (Isaiah 49:16) Why was Jerusalem destroyed? Since \’from your children, \’your ravagers\’ and \’your ruiners\’ came forth\’.\” (Tanhuma Pekudei 1) This midrash, of course, ignores the original context of this verse in Isaiah and is unconcerned that its original intent was a source of consolation. The second clause of this sentence is understood to be a description of the nation\’s children. The intent of this interpretation is to place the onus for Jerusalem\’s destruction in the hands of the people rather than in God\’s hands.
Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel (15th century Portugal, Spain and Italy) rejects the interpretation accepted by most commentators in favor of an interpretation which hones more closely to that offered by the midrash. He asks: \”If this verse refers to the future redemption, then how can one possibly accept the interpretation: \”Swiftly your children are coming\”, when the exile seems so lengthy…? (See Isaiah Prophecy 28 Question 3) In a lengthy answer, he says: \”The children of Zion quickly forgot their land when God forgot it, for among those [who were exiled] were wicked people who had no love for the Holy Land and its ruins. This is what is meant that I [God] remember \’your ravagers\’ and \’your ruiners\’ that came forth from you, that is to say, that they are the cause of the destruction of the land and the Temple.\” Abrabanel adds: \”Others interpret that: \”these ravager and ruiners will disappear from Israel before the coming redemption\” (Adapted from commentary to 49:17)
Abrabanel\’s message from this verse seems to be that when the Jewish people have mercy on their homeland, so will God. The two are integrally connected. Let us pray that God will soon have a partner, so that Israel shall have true consolation.
(In memory of our teacher Rabbi Moshe Sacks – a beloved \”Talmid Chacham\” at the Yeshiva, a lover of Torah and restorer of Zion).