Parshat Ki Tetze
August 28, 2004
Theology, even prophetic theology, requires the interaction of belief and reality. It is necessary for ideas about how God interacts with the world to take into account what will make sense to the believer. This is why the following verses proved problematic to Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish commentator and statesman: “For a little while I forsook you but with vast love I will bring you back. In slight anger (shetzef ketzef), for a moment, I hid My face from you but with everlasting kindness I will bring you back in love, said the Lord your Redeemer.” (Isaiah 54:7-8) Abrabanel noted that if this verse meant to promise the people that their exile would be brief and that God in His “everlasting kindness” would quickly return them to their homeland then the verse is mistaken since the Jewish historical experience has been otherwise. For Abrabanel, this question was particularly poignant since he personally experienced the expulsions from both Portugal and Spain.
Before we contend with how Abrabanel dealt with this question, it is worthy to note that the references in this verse make perfect sense within their own historical context. Abrabanel was unaware that the book of Isaiah was probably, at least, two prophetic books combined, the first part of the book from the pre-exilic period of the kings while the second portion of the book, where these verses are found, was probably composed during the period of the return from Babylonian exile. These historical circumstances make the message in these verses plausible. God’s anger (the Babylonian exile) lasted only a brief time and since it had ended, the prophet consoled the people by promising them that their return from exile would be permanent. As A.J Heschel points out: “Second Isaiah’s task was to give “power to the faint”…God’s relationship with Israel is eternal…It is inconceivable that sin, the work of man should destroy what is ultimately divine and eternal.” (The Prophets p. 153)
Abrabanel, however, sought to contend with this question in a manner that would be relevant to his own audience. He asserts that this verse does not deal with the experience of exile as a whole but rather with the trials and tribulations of the people while they are in exile. He claims that this verse is a promise that when bad things happen while the Jewish people are in exile, they will be brief. This interpretation emphasizes that God’s anger will only be momentary. (See Rashi) God will not let His people under any circumstances be destroyed. This explanation brought comfort to the beleaguered sage and statesman in the days of the inquisition and expulsion in the same way that Second Isaiah’s prophecy did in his generation.