Haftarah Parshat Yitro (Isaiah 6:1-13)
February 18, 2017 / 22 Shevat 5777
Isaiah was anything but eager to take on the role of prophet. God had to pull out all stops to convince him. And all for good reason. Isaiah would be asked to be the harbinger of the severest of messages, a message which would foresee the downfall of the nation on account of its sinfulness. After Isaiah accepted his charge, he delivered this message to his people: “Go say to the people: ‘Hear, indeed, but do not understand; See, indeed, but do not grasp.” (verse 9) It gets worse. The people’s obstinacy is then reinforced by God: “Dull that people’s mind, stop its ears; lest seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears, it also grasp with its mind and repent and save (heal) itself.” (verse 10)
Startled by the terrible nature of this prophecy, Isaiah asks: “How long my Lord?” (verse 11) God’s reply is even more awful: “Till towns lie without inhabitants and houses without people, and the ground lies waste and desolate for the Lord will banish all of the population and deserted sites are many in the midst of the land.” (verses 11-12) The prophecy is capped off with a verse both obscure and seemingly woe some: “But while a tenth part still remains in it, it shall repent. It shall be ravaged like the terebinth and the oak, of which stumps are left even when they are felled; its stump shall be a holy seed.” (verse 13)
The prophet’s message is, at once, both tragic and hopeful. The nation will be ravaged with only a minute remnant to spare. It will be like a forest left barren with only the stumps of trees left as a reminder of what once was. Still, as anyone who has been to a forest in spring knows, even the stumps of trees bring forth sprouts which ultimately grow into new trees. (See Y. Ben Nun and B. Lau, Yishayahu Kitzipurim Afot, p. 92)
When one reads this prophecy, one wonders about the nature of prophecy. Was Isaiah issuing a social commentary where he saw his people’s wrongful acts and was warning them of their impending punishment or was he aware of a pending geo-political situation which was about to bring disaster and sought to pin it on his people’s wrongdoings? The answer to this question might never be known. In either case, Isaiah attempts to turn his people’s tragedy into one of hope. Even the most desperate situation has the potential to bring about rebirth. His truly prophetic answer is that despair need not breed despair, for through faith and hope life must always reign triumphant.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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