Haftarah Parshat Lech Lecha (Isaiah 40:27-41:16)
November 12, 2016 / 11 Heshvan 5777
What makes someone a “redeemer”? One dictionary defines a “redeemer” as someone who “obtains the release or restoration of, as from captivity”. This week’s haftarah recounts just such a figure: “Who has aroused a victor (tzedek) from the East, summoned him to His service? Has delivered up nations to him and trodden sovereign down? (41:2) From the historical context of this prophecy, the period of the return from Babylonian exile, this description of the victor or redeemer seems to fit one figure perfectly – Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire who overcame the Babylonian empire, giving the Jews permission to return to the land of Israel to reestablish a Jewish kingdom. This non-Jewish king was the divinely chosen “redeemer” of the Jews! He was God’s agent in the physical and political redemption of the Jewish people.
This identification was not recognized in Jewish circles until medieval authorities began to seek the “peshat” or plain meaning the text. It was first championed by the Spanish sage, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (12th century). The earlier Jewish tradition, however, identified this redeemer figure in this verse with Abraham, as we note in the Targum Yonatan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets: “[God] who brought from exile in the East, Abraham the chosen, righteous in truth…” Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provence) spells out Abraham’s qualifications: “God awakened him from among the idol worshipers and every place he went, wherever he set his feet, he spoke of truth and righteousness, saying: leave your idolatry which has no substance and worship the Creator of the world. He taught them the ways of faith. There is nothing more awesome than this.”
How is it possible that the sages veered so far from the plain meaning of the prophecy? The sages, apparently, redefined the idea of what constitutes a redeemer. Abraham was certainly not a geopolitical redeemer like Cyrus. He was a different kind of redeemer. He was a redeemer of souls, leading people from idolatry to faith in God. His kind of awakening was not a national wakening. It was an awakening of the spirit. This speaks of a marked difference in Jewish thinking, away from the political towards the spiritual, perhaps born of lack of political possibilities.
Still, Abraham’s model is a great inspiration. It speaks to the very essence of Judaism – faith in a relationship with God who serves as the inspiration behind all we are and all we need to be.