Haftarah Parshat Ekev
July 27, 2013
20 Av 5773
This week’s haftarah is made up of a number of distinct prophecies. In one of them (50:4-9), the prophet describes the nature and difficulties of his task. He notes that his strength and ability to cope with his role as a prophet is derived from the message that God has imparted to him: “The Lord God gave me a skilled tongue, to know how to speak ‘timely’ (la’ut) words to the weary.” (4)
What exactly did God teach him? The answer to this question depends, in part, on the meaning of the word “la’ut – lamed, ayin, vav, tav” which is a hapax legomenon – a singular usage in the Tanach. This of course makes the determination of its meaning difficult. The meaning adopted by the above translation “timely” is based on the assumption that the word is derived from the two letter root “ayin tav” meaning time. This interpretation is found in the Septuagint, Rabbi Menachem ben Saruk’s dictionary, the Mahberet (10th century Spain), Rashi, Rabbi David Kimchi and others. Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets (9th century), translates the word as “ilfa – to teach”: “The Lord God gave me a learned tongue, to know to teach to the weary righteous to speak words of Torah wisely.” If the word is based on a root similar to the Arabic root “ayin vav tav” then it would take the meaning “help” or “assist” – “to know speak words to assist the weary”. (See S. Paul, Isaiah 40-66, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 315)
A late midrash, Pesikta Rabbati, records a midrash which links this prophecy with Isaiah’s introductory prophecy (chapter 6) where God has an angel touch a fiery coal to Isaiah’s lips to purify them for his prophetic task: “When Isaiah saw this (that he was unharmed by the coal), he began to justify Israel’s innocence and act in their defense. How do we know? At the end of his prophecy, it says: ‘The Lord God gave me a skilled tongue, to know how to teach the defense of the weary.” Rabbi Yitzhak Hacohen, son of Rabbi Hama taught in the name of Rabbi Hilkiah in the name of Rabbi Shimon asked: ‘What is the meaning of “la’ut”? – that He taught how to defend them.” (adapted from Chapter 33, Ish Shalom ed. pp. 150b-151a)
In this midrash, Isaiah undergoes a transformation. If his mission, according to the plain sense of the text was to act as God’s messenger to His people, giving them the confidence and encouragement necessary to carry out the restoration of the nation after the exile, this midrash transforms him into Israel’s advocate before God and the nations. This required no less strength than confronting the people for their wrongdoings.
These days, when it seems that Israel has no shortage of critics from both inside and out, it might be fitting for some of Israel’s would be ‘prophets’ to learn how to be an advocate as well as a critic. Perhaps this combination would truly bring about the redemption.