Parshat Ki Tetze
September 1, 2001
Isaiah opens this prophecy with the following command: “Sing, O barren one, you who bore no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who did not travail! For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused, said the Lord.” (Isaiah 54:1)
In this prophecy, Isaiah compares the yet to be rebuilt Jerusalem (or perhaps the people of Israel in exile) to a woman who is without children. Ultimately she will be comforted with abundant offspring. The import of this prophecy is that redemption will soon come and that it is already appropriate to rejoice. Similarly, in the second part of the verse, Israel is compared to a woman whose spouse has abandoned her. She is promised that she will nevertheless be redeemed and that her destiny still holds promise.
These words of comfort were not interpreted this way by all who read them. In the following Midrash from Mishnaic times, we are told about the confrontation between Bruria, the sagacious wife of Rabbi Meir and a sectarian who wanted to use this verse to ridicule the words of God.
A sectarian once asked Bruria, the following question: The verse commands, “Sing, O barren woman, you who have not born children.” Because she did not bear she should sing? Bruria replied to him: “You fool! Look at the end of the verse, where it is written: “For the children of the desolate shall be more than the children of the married wife, said the Lord.” So then what is the meaning of “a barren woman that did not bear”? Sing, O community of Israel who can be compared with a barren woman who has not given birth to children like you (the sectarian) whose fate is Gehinom (the nether world). (adapted from Berachot 10a)
The sectarian, for the sake of his argument with Bruria, ignored the poetic sense of the verse and intentionally understood the commandment to be absurd. Obviously, his interpretation strays from the intention of the verse. Yet, Bruria’s interpretation is also creative since she implies that the metaphor of the “barren woman” does not apply to Israel’s fallen state but rather is a positive image, namely, that the children of Israel are raised up to be loyal to God and the Torah. They will not share the fate of those who scorn the words of the Torah.
Bruria’s interpretation offers us an insightful lesson. Even though her interpretation also veers from the plain meaning of the text, her incisive and creative interpretation represents the best of the midrashic tradition since her teaching is “for the sake of Heaven.” – it was taught totally out of loyalty to the Torah. May our creativity also share her brilliance and love of God.