Haftarah Parshat Lech Lecha (Isaiah 40:27-41:16)
October 28, 2017 / 8 Heshvan 5778
Following the Jews’ loss of sovereignty and exile to Babylonia, it should come as no surprise that they thought little of their own strength and felt incapable of carrying out their national mission. Thus we see that many of the prophecies in the last part of the book of Isaiah aim to give the exiles the strength and courage to return and rebuild their homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
But with uplift as his goal, it seems quite odd that the prophet would address the exiles in an insulting and demeaning fashion: “’Fear not, O worm Jacob, O men of Israel, I will help you’, declares the Lord, ‘I, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel’.” (41:14).
If this appellation troubles you, it apparently also bothered Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, which chose to gloss over the word “worm” completely. It translates the verse as ‘Do not fear, tribes of Jacob, seed of the house of Israel”.
But other commentators took up the challenge and offered explanations. Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (11th century Spain), the premier pashtan (advocate for the plain meaning of the text), accepts the word’s negative connotation. He writes that the prophet calls them a worm because “Israel was thought of as a worm in the eyes of the Babylonians (their captors).”
Rashi seems to take things further. They don’t just APPEAR weak to the Babylonians, they in fact ARE weak: “The family of Jacob is weak like a worm, which has no strength except in its mouth.”
But Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence), however, sees something positive in Rashi’s words: “For they are weak like a worm on account of being in exile. And in the Tanhuma (an 8th century Eretz Yisrael midrash collection): ‘Why is Israel compared to a worm? To say to you: Just as a worm does not strike a cedar tree except with its mouth, and it is soft and strikes something hard, so, Israel, all of its strength is in prayer…’” Thus Kimche turns Rashi’s reading on its head: the prophet is now telling the people that even though they are not physically strong, there are other sources of power they can tap to change their circumstances.
Rabbi Yosef Kaspi (13-14th century Provence), a philosopher and exegete, presents a middle ground between these negative and positive readings: “[The “worm” metaphor] comes to make us aware that we are living creatures and are similar to the lowest of insects, especially if we do not make active use of our wisdom. This metaphor was used to teach us the
necessary qualities of humility and lowliness and in order to awaken us to acquire the wisdom and insight which distinguish us from worms. In my opinion, this is the purpose of the mitzvot written in the Torah…” (adapted)
Like Rashi and Ibn Ezra, and unlike Kimche, being worm-like is a negative, but it is a spiritual/intellectual lowliness that they CAN change and not a political/material lowliness that cannot, Kaspi finds a truly uplifting message in the the prophet’s words: while you are indeed in a lowly state, through the pursuit of wisdom and the fulfillment of the mitzvot of the Torah the nation has the ability to transform itself to a state of nobility.
Kaspi’s message is a worthy one for our generation as well.