Parshat Ki Tavo
September 9, 2006
Isaiah\’s message in this week\’s haftarah is replete with images intended to encourage and comfort a despondent people. He promises that Israel will bask in God\’s divine light (1-2); the exiled will be ingathered along with extraordinary wealth (4-9); the nations of the world will rebuild Jerusalem and will pay the city and the Jewish people homage (10-16); and the people of Israel and Jerusalem will be consoled and blessed both spiritually and materially (17-22). The prophet, however, did not state explicitly when these events were to occur. Was his message intended to encourage the forlorn exiles returning to repopulate their battered and broken-down home land at the beginning of the Second Temple period (~5th century BCE) or was it intended to be a messianic message describing God\’s ultimate redemption of His people and His land?
The modern Israeli scholar, A. Haham, notes that this prophecy does not seem to allude to any particular time frame but does seem predicated upon the fact that the Temple exists and that offerings can be made there. This requirement might lead to the conclusion that this prophecy was intended for the Second Temple period, so Haham adds the following disclaimer: \”However, the consolation offered [in this prophecy] is exaggerated, and did not come about according to its plain sense during the Second Temple period. Consequently, we expect its fulfillment in the coming redemption…\” (Isaiah, Daat Mikra, p. 746)
Haham encapsulates, in this quotation, an interesting debate alluded to in Rabbi Saadia Gaon\’s philosophical opus, Emunot v\’ Deot (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions). Saadia (9th century Egypt, Eretz Yisrael, Babylonia), noted leader and Talmudist, was also the father of Jewish philosophical thinking which did not exist in any systematic way before him. Saadia\’s thinking was based on the idea that there are two sources of truth in the world: revelation and reason. This philosophy, known by some as the \”Double Faith Theory\”, attempts to find an accommodation between rational thinking and revelation.
In this instance, Saadia is confronted by a group of Jews who contended that prophecies such as Isaiah\’s were meant to have occurred during the Second Temple period. These interpreters apparently maintained that if these prophecies did not happen at their appointed time, it was because they were conditioned upon the people\’s observing the Torah properly. Since the people did not fulfill their condition, the prophecies of redemption did not occur. Saadia rejects this approach in no uncertain terms. His method of rejection is what is particularly interesting since it involves his application of rational thinking and observation to his understanding of these prophetic revelations. He first notes that the above prophecies were not stated conditionally and consequently were not intended to be conditional. He further notes that the historical conditions of these prophecies has yet to have been met and cites a number of examples including two found in this week\’s haftarah: the nations of the world have not as yet taken it upon themselves to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem (verse 10) nor in Second Temple times were the gates of the city open day and night (verse 11). Since these among many other messianic conditions mentioned in the Bible have not historically been met, it must be that the promises made by Isaiah have yet to come about. (See Emunot v\’Deot 8:7 Kapah ed. pp. 352-3)
Saadia applies common sense here to his understanding of Isaiah\’s prophecies in an attempt to discern their meaning. His is but one of the means we use to search out meaning from the wisdom of the past to enrich our present and future.
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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