Haftarah Parshat Ki Tavo (Isaiah 60:1-22)
September 13, 2014 / 18 Elul 57774
The “light” will come and darkness and despair will be dispersed. This light will transform God’s people, rendering them pristine, pure, even in God’s eyes, as the prophet expresses in a now iconic verse at the end of his prophecy: “And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess the land for all time. They are the shoot that I planted, the handiwork in which I glory.” (60:21) In the previous chapter, on the other hand, God despairs of finding anyone righteous upon whom to found the redemption and so is forced to act on His own: “He (God) saw that there was no man. He gazed long, but no one intervened, then His own arm won His triumph, His victorious right hand supported Him.” (59:16)
Rabbi Yohanan, the predominant sage in Eretz Yisrael during the Talmudic period, uses these two contrasting visions to express his own messianic expectations: “Rabbi Yohanan also said: The son of David (the mashiah) will come only in a generation which is either altogether righteous or altogether wicked: ‘In a generation that is altogether righteous’, as it is written: And your people, all of them are righteous, shall possess the land forever.’ (60:21) ‘Or altogether wicked,’ as it is written: ‘And He saw that there was no man. He gazed long and no one intervened’ (59:16)” (Sanhedrin 98a)
How could it be that the messiah should come when people are unworthy of redemption? Rabbi Yithak Abrabanel (15th century Portugal, Spain) claims that the advent of the messiah is dependent on a fixed time. When that time arrives, the messiah will come without reference to the condition of the people. (Yeshuat Mishiho Part 1, 13) Rabbi David Kimhe (12 century Provence) attempts to harmonize between Rabbi Yohanan’s two alternatives: “We see that the sages were confounded whether the people were redeemed on account of repentance or not… The resolution of this question is that the majority of Israel will repent after they see the signs of the redemption, and this is the interpretation of the verse: ‘And He saw that there was no man – for no one repented before they saw the beginning of the redemption, that is why there were still sinners and rebels. (Kimhe on 59:16)
Kimhe’s interpretation makes an interesting and, perhaps, depressing statement about human nature. Some of us are capable of “managing” our behavior without outside inspiration while most of us need an outside “push” to inspire us. Here, Kimhe speaks of teshuvah or a macro level as being inspired by universal redemption. The “push” will be global. At this season, though, let it be sufficient that we feel Rosh Hashanah closing in to give us that little extra inspiration to be inspired to mend our relations both with God and with each other.
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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