Haftarah Parshat Lekh Lekha (Isaiah 40:27-41:16)
November 1, 2014 / 8 Heshvan 5775
The reader might wonder what connects this week’s haftarah with the story of Abraham’s journey to Canaan. It must be said that the connection is a matter of interpretation. At the beginning of the haftarah’s second message, the prophet proclaims: “Who has roused (he’ir) a victor from the East, summoned him to His service? Has delivered up nations to him and trodden sovereigns down? Has rendered their swords to dust, their bows like windblown straw? He pursues them, he goes on unscathed; no shackle is placed on his feet.” (41:2-3) The prophet is alluding to a heroic figure, bolstered by God who is nearly invincible. But who could it be?
The answer to this question will depend on from whose perspective one approaches it. This prophecy is found in the later part of the book of Isaiah which means that its original audience consisted of the Jews who had returned from Babylonian exile. Their “hero” was Cyrus the Persian king, whom they viewed as their savior since he had come from the East, devastated the Babylonians, and had permitted them to return to their homeland. This interpretation was championed by Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, the medieval Sephardi commentator, who was the renowned master of the “pshat” or plain meaning of the text. It is also supported by the opening verses of the book of Ezra where Cyrus announced his permission for the Jews to return to their homeland in language similar to that used in this prophecy: “The Lord roused (he’ir) the spirit of king Cyrus of Persia.” (Ezra 1:1) (See S. Paul, Isaiah 40-48, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 115)
The Rabbinic tradition, however, identified Abraham as the hero of this prophecy, primarily based on the following midrash: “Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘How long shall the world go on in darkness: Let there be light!’ So, ‘And God said: Let there be light – this alludes to Abraham, as it is written: ‘Who has roused a victor from the east, summoned him to His service’ (Isaiah 41:2)” (Bereishit Rabba 2:3, Theodore-Albeck ed. p. 16) Later in this midrashic collection, these verses from Isaiah were seen as allusions to other events in Abraham’s life. (See BR 42:3, p. 418; Rashi)
Rabbi David Kimche best sums up this association with Abraham, who as the hero summoned from the East, continues to inspire us: “this is Abraham, our forefather, whom God awakened to go forth from the land in the East, the land of his birth, from the midst of idol worshippers… every place that he went, wherever he went, he called for righteousness and truth, telling those around him to leave idolatry because it is false, and to worship the One who created the world. He taught them the way of faith. Is there any greater wonder than this? A man who got up from among idolaters, and reproved them on their false faith and had no fear of their kings? Who else could have inspired him other than God?” (adapted translation)
What makes Abraham an inspiring religious figure? It was his willingness to be an iconoclast, to challenge those around him and to lead them in the ways of God – these characteristics are the hallmarks of the Jewish religious spirit in every generation.