Haftarah Parshat Re’eh (Isaiah 54:11-55:5)
August 23, 2014 / 27 Av 5774
In order to understand some prophetic messages, one sometimes has to read “between the lines”. When the prophet says: “It is I who created the smith to fan the charcoal fire and produce the tools for his work; so it is I who create the instruments of havoc. No weapon formed against you shall succeed and every tongue that contends with you at law you shall defeat. Such is the lot of the servants of the Lord; such their triumph through Me, declared the Lord” (Isaiah 54:16-17), his intent is to tell us not only that God will stand up for His people but also that God created the threat as well as its remedy. The prophet tells us this to dispel the idea that His people’s enemies might be empowered by some other deity. Religion is often a game of spelling out not only what is to be believed but, just as much, to make known what are unacceptable beliefs.
This is not always an easy exercise. Answers to difficult religious questions are not always easy to come by. The following rabbinic story contains just that kind of situation: “Rabbi Yonathan was going up to worship in Jerusalem, when he passed the Palatinus (the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim) and was seen by a Samaritan, who asked him, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To worship in Jerusalem,’ replied Rabbi Yonathan. ‘Would it not be better to pray at this blessed mountain than at that ruined house (since the Temple had been destroyed)?’ He inquired: ‘Why do you say this mountain is blessed?’ The Samaritan replied: ‘Since it was not submerged by the Flood.’ Now Rabbi Yonathan momentarily forgot the teaching [on the subject] and did not answer, but his ass-driver said to him: ‘Rabbi, with your permission I will answer him.’ ‘Go ahead,’ he said. ‘If it [your blessed mountain] is of the high mountains,’ he answered, ‘then it is written, “And all the high mountains were covered.’ (Genesis 7:19) And if it is of the low ones, Scripture ignored it.’ Rabbi Yonathan promptly descended from his ass and made him [the driver] ride three miles and applied three verses to him: (1.) There shall not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle,’ (Deuteronomy 7:14) – i.e. even among your cattle drivers; (2.) Rakkathek [ ’your temples’] is like a pomegranate split open (Song of Songs 4:3): even the emptiest (rekanim) among you are as full of answers as a pomegranate [is of seeds]; and so it is written, (3.) No weapon formed against you shall succeed and every tongue that contends with you at law you shall defeat. Such is the lot of the servants of the Lord; such their triumph through Me, declared the Lord.’ (Isaiah 54:17).” (adapted from Bereishit Rabbah 32:10 Theodore Albeck ed. pp. 296-7)
This episode may have reflected a short period of time in the 4th century CE when the Samaritans had been granted permission to rebuild their Temple while the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem lay in ruins. The Samaritan used this reality to take a theological jab at the rabbi, leaving the rabbi dumbfounded and unable to respond to the religious challenge issued by his adversary. His ass driver took up the cudgels of this debate and successfully responded to the attack. Rabbi Yonathan blessed him profusely including in his blessing the above cited verse from our haftarah.
The sages wanted to teach us in this anecdote the importance of being resourceful in standing up for one’s beliefs. One should never be left empty handed when challenged. This endeavor requires a serious Jewish education, dignity and self-confidence. Each of us should attend to this task.