Haftarah Parshat Ekev (Isaiah 49:19-51:3)
August 16, 2014/20 Av 5774
Marriage is often used in the Tanakh (Bible) as a metaphor to describe the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Similarly, the prophets sometimes use divorce as a device to illustrate the symbolic dissolution of the relationship between God and His people. In this second of the seven haftarot of consolation (Shiva d’nehamta), the prophet utilizes the metaphor of divorce in a debate with an earlier source over the ultimate fate of the relationship between God and his people.
The institution of divorce is described in Deuteronomy: “A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorce, hands it to her and sends her away from his house.” (24:1) Jeremiah makes symbolic use of this institution: “I noted: Because rebel Israel had committed adultery, I cast her off and handed her a bill of divorce.” (3:8) Jeremiah uses this metaphor to describe the exile of the “faithless” Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians. It is intended to express the finality of the exile and their break with God. The author of the post-exilic second part of the book of Isaiah, which was written on the return of the exiles from the exile of the Southern Kingdom of Judah after their exile at the hands of the Babylonians, was well aware of Jeremiah’ earlier use of this metaphor when he wrote: “Thus said the Lord: ‘Where is the bill of divorce of your mother whom I dismissed?” (Isaiah 50:1)
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain 11th century) noticed this interaction and noted: “[Isaiah’s prophecy] comes to deny Jeremiah’s [earlier] prophecy[‘s applicability to the exiles from Judea] since Jeremiah spoke about the kingdom of Israel which would never return but Isaiah spoke of the kingdom of David (Judah) from which the messiah would arise.” (adapted) Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) elaborates: “…for Judah was not given a bill of divorce, for the situation was one where the husband sent his wife from the house out of anger but never gave her a bill of divorce, so in the end was able to take her back…”
Jeremiah’s fatalistic prophecy probably lingered in the minds of the Judean exiles. They likely thought that its message applied to them as well. The post exilic ‘Second Isaiah’ seemed determined to dispel this idea by borrowing Jeremiah’s imagery and declaring its inapplicability to the fate of the Babylonian exiles to whom he offered encouragement. He wants them to know that that their alienation from God was not final, that reconciliation was possible and that their homeland would be restored.
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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