Parshat Ki Tavo
September 4, 2004
Isaiah’s message in this week’s haftarah is once again one of encouragement. It is a message of rebuilding. It is a message that all will be better than it was in the past and that those who destroyed will be enjoined to provide for means for the restoration. This idea of just retribution plays a prominent role in the haftarah. It is not just a matter of poetic justice, namely, that he who destroys will rebuild. It is religiously more profound. Those who rejected God will ultimately play a role in serving God. The role of just retribution seems to have weighed heavily on the hearts of the people in the times of the prophet, as we note in the following verses: “You shall suck the milk of the nations, suckle at royal breasts and you shall know that I the Lord am your Savior, I, The Mighty One of Jacob, am your Redeemer. Instead of copper I will bring gold, instead of iron I will bring silver, instead of wood, copper; And instead of stone, iron. And I will appoint Well-being as your government, prosperity as your officials. (Isaiah 60:16-17)
These verses are a promise to a vanquished people, who are striving to restore their lives that their enemies will provide them with the means for rebuilding something more glorious than what they had in the past. Targum Yonathon, the 7th century Aramaic translation to the Prophets states it this way: “As compensation for the copper that they stole from you, Jerusalem, I (God) will bring gold; and to replace the iron, I will bring silver. In place of the wood, I will bring copper and in place of the stone, iron…” Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provance), emphasizes that the enemies will provide the compensation: “I (God) will convince them to pay you many times over for what they took from you, either them or their fathers.” (See also Ibn Ezra)
What is clear from these interpretations is that the prophecy gives the nations an opportunity to right their wrongs and to set things aright. Is it always possible to rectify one’s wrongful actions? Not according to Rabbi Yochanan, (3rd century Eretz Yisrael): “And said Rabbi Yochanan: ‘Woe to the nations of the world who have no way of righting the wrongs that they have committed, as it says, For copper I will bring gold, and for iron I will bring silver, and for wood, brass and for stones, iron. But what can they bring to replace Rabbi Akiba and his companions [whom they murdered]? Of them Scripture says: Though I cleanse them [of other transgressions] from their blood [that of the murdered sages] I will not cleanse them. (see Joel 4:21) (Adapted from Rosh Hashanah 23a according to the Maharsha)
Rabbi Yochanan sees just compensation as something beneficial to both the victim and the perpetrator. It allows the perpetrator to attain atonement for the wrong that he committed. There are, however, acts for which no amount of compensation is sufficient and, consequently, atonement, according to Rabbi Yochanan, is not possible. Callous disregard for life, not just the lives of great sages, falls in this category. Rabbi Yochanan felt, apparently, that even God will not help people of this ilk.
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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