Haftarah Parshat Shemot (Isaiah 27:6-28:13:29:22-23)
January 2, 2016 / 20 Shevat 5776
Isaiah rails against the “drunken behavior” of the leaders of the northern kingdom of Israel. This metaphoric inebriation caused them to be unresponsive to the prophetic messages which might have saved them from destruction. The interchange between the prophet and those he criticized is portrayed in an almost a comic way since the retorts in Hebrew resonate like nonsense syllables: “To whom would he give instruction (yoreh deah) ? To whom expound a message? To those newly weaned from milk, just taken from the breast? – That same mutter upon mutter (tzav l’tzav), murmur upon murmur (kav l’kav), now here, now there (za’ir sham za’ir sham)!” (28:9-10)
It is difficult from the context of this prophecy to determine how this particular exchange came off – namely, who said what to whom, but how you answer this question will determine its meaning. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) reads this passage as a description of the inability of the leaders to understand God’s teaching because of their inebriation: “Since they are drunk and are only concerned with food and drink…they are not capable of understanding and discernment, for they are like children who soil themselves…one must teach them one ‘little’ mitzvah at a time so that they might accept it.” (adapted) For Kimche, this passage is a prophetic lesson in how to teach a difficult audience.
A modern commentator, Amos Haham (20th century Israel) sees this quote as a drunken taunt issuing from the mouths of those who are the target of Isaiah’s message. They chide Isaiah for teaching them as if they were children instead of as men of ‘position’. He reads this passage as an indictment intended to ridicule the corrupt leaders of the nation.
Rashi reads this passage as a sign of the total religious betrayal of the leaders of the kingdom: “The prophet would teach them a mitzvah from the mouth of God (tzav) and they would answer with an idolatrous command to oppose it. [Each time] the prophet chided them they would respond command for command. The prophet would then answer them that punishment would soon come.” (adapted)
The prophet’s job is a difficult one. His (or her) audience is frequently a difficult one, caught up in concerns which have the potential to blind it from seeing the implications of its behavior. Still, the prophet must persevere, little by little, in doing God’s work. There is no other option