Shabbat Rosh Hodesh
June 19, 2004
The final lines (verses 18-24) of this special haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh are eschatological in nature, namely, they speak of the end of days. Isaiah’s vision is deeply disquieting. The nations will be gathered together, apparently to do battle. They will experience a divine “sign” in which the few who escape will spread the word of God’s “glory”. (verse 19) Only after this violent recognition of God’s glory, will the nations come to pay homage to God. (verse 20) At that time, all peoples will be counted as worthy of serving God (verse 21) and God will renew and restore the world as He will Israel’s status. (verse 22) The nations will worship God on a regular basis (verse 23) and the wicked will have seemingly eternal horrendous punishment. (verse 24)
The picture of the end of times presented here is theologically difficult, for while justice ultimately triumphs and God gains universal recognition, some elements of this vision are macabre and grotesque. In addition, a quick comparison of the eschatological visions of some of the other prophets yields numerous contradictions to Isaiah’s scheme. (See for instance the visions found in Ezekiel 38-39; Joel 4; Zechariah 14) How are we to contend with this dilemma since the difficulties found in these passages are simply too great to gloss over?
Maimonides (12th century Spain and Egypt) responded to this problem: “All of these things, no one will know how they will happen until they happen, since the things mentioned in the prophet are not easily understood. Similarly, the sages have not received a tradition in these matters except for what can be determined from the verses. This is why there are disputes among the sages on these matters. In any case, the sequence and details of these matters are not essential elements of faith. One should not get “carried away” by legends or midrashim on these matters. Rather one should wait and believe…” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 12:2)
Maimonides seems well aware that these visions are, at least in part, theological speculation on the part of the prophets about matters which human beings are as yet incapable of describing, let alone understanding. Maimonides, the philosopher, was also well aware of the potentially destructive nature of those who dabble too much in eschatological speculations since such speculation, whether Jewish or in other traditions, often led to dire consequences both spiritually and morally. This is a warning worth heeding.