Parshat Ki Tetze
September 17, 2005
In this fifth of the seven haftarah of consolation (shiva d\’nechamta), Isaiah proffers a message of encouragement to the children of Israel. Since most modern commentators assert that the later chapters of the book of Isaiah reflect the period of the Babylonian exile, Isaiah\’s message is aimed at a people who have suffered the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of its children. They feel forsaken and barren because the Babylonians have destroyed their homes and exiled their children, so God encourages them: \”Shout O barren one, you who have born no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who have shown no travail! For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused, said the Lord.\” (Isaiah 54:1)
Isaiah\’s juxtaposition of the \”forlorn wife\” with the \”espoused wife\” is particularly interesting. Rabbi Amos Hacham (20th century Israel) interprets this metaphor in two different ways. The \”forlorn wife\” obviously represents Israel. In his first interpretation, the children of the \”forlorn wife\” will outnumber the children of Israel\’s enemies, those who have exiled her and destroyed her home. In his second possible explanation, the \”espoused wife\” represents the community before the destruction. God\’s promise, then, is that the returning community will be larger and more prosperous than the pre-exilic community. (Daat Mikra, Isaiah, p. 577-8)
Targum Yonathan (7th century Eretz Yisrael) makes the first interpretation relevant to his own day by inserting his own enemy in place of the enemy who challenged the nation during the days of the exile to Babylonia: \”For the children of Jerusalem the desolate shall outnumber the children of Rome the inhabited.\” Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provance), following the same pattern, replaces Rome with the nations of the world, reflecting his own reality. Rabbi Joseph Kaspi (13th-14th century Spain), a rationalist, in his commentary, explained this comparison within what he thought to be the historical context of the prophecy. Since, he accepted the idea that the entire book of Isaiah was composed during the period of the Assyrians; he identifies the \”espoused wife\” with that nation and not the later Babylonians.
The following midrash offers an unconventional reading of this comparison: Said Rabbi Levi: \’When the Temple was standing, it brought forth for Me (God) wicked men, like Ahaz, Manasseh, and Amon (wicked kings), yet when it was destroyed, it raised up for Me righteous men, like Daniel and his friends, Mordechai and his friends, Ezra and his friends.\’ Rabbi Aba bar Kahana in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: \’Of Rabbi Levi, Scripture said: \”for greater were the children of the desolate than the children of the settled\’\’, that is to say: \’It made a place for Me for many more righteous people when it was destroyed than it did when it was standing.\’ (Adapted from Shir Hashirim Rabbah 4:4:9)
This midrash points out an interesting, if not tragic irony and offers it up as a source of consolation for a generation whose lives were not quite restored. Rabbi Levi\’s analysis is counterintuitive. He identified the \”espoused wife\” with the built Temple and the intact nation, while the \”forlorn\” wife\” is identified with the destroyed Temple and exiled nation. He notes that tranquility and prosperity often produce corruption, while adversity builds character.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter (the Sefat Emet – 19th-20th century Poland), spiritualized the message of this midrash. He concluded that prosperity often causes ostentatious behavior which is destructive, while adversity causes a person to repair his or her ways. He asserts that adversity is the source of spiritual inwardness and moral growth. (See Sefat Emet Parshat Ki Tetze 5651)
May we be blessed with these spiritual gifts born of redemption and prosperity as understood in a conventional reading of Isaiah and, if need be, may we discover these gifts in any adversity we might suffer.