Haftarah Parshat Lech Lecha
(Isaiah 40:27- 41:16)
October 19, 2002
The verse “Fear not, O worm Jacob, O men of Israel, I [God] will help you, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 41:14) is meant as a source of comfort to Israel, meaning that no matter how dire their situation might be God will be with them to help them. The designation of the nation as a worm strikes us as nothing less than strange. The sages of the past apparently had the same reaction and attempted to determine exactly what might be the message in this description.
The most radical treatment of this verse is found in the Aramaic translation of the prophets, the Targum Jonathan (c. 7th century), which apparently chose, in his translation, to ignore the designation “worm” entirely, translating it instead as “tribe”: “Fear not, tribes of the House of Jacob, seed of the House of Israel…”. Rashi, on the other hand, seems to capture the pshat (plain meaning) of the image: “the family of Jacob is weak like a worm”. The pshat meaning of this image proved inadequate even to Rashi, who sought something deeper in its message. This he found in a midrash which sees the strength of the Jewish people in the image of the worm: “Why were Israel compared to a worm? To say to you – just as a worm devastates a tree with its mouth, even though it is soft and the tree is hard, so too, Israel, with the power of prayer, will overcome their enemies who are strong like trees.” (see Tanchuma Bshalach 9). This midrash probably brought solace to Rashi’s generation when they faced the trials of living amongst often hostile neighbors.
Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, the 11th century Spanish philosopher and poet, uses this verse to urge the Jews not to despair even if their situation seems particularly desperate: “If your heart should despair from the length of the exile, the dispersion of our people, or their diminishing numbers… nevertheless do not be surprised that we will return to our former greatness, since even if there only remained a single Jew, it is written: “Fear not, worm of Jacob,” the “worm being what remains of a person after he has been left to ‘the worms’ in his grave, [yet the message of the verse is “fear not”]” (adapted from the Kuzari 3:11) The Worm is not a metaphor for the Jews in this passage but rather a symbol of the ultimate source of despair – death. God will save His people from even this.
Rabbi Joseph Kaspi, a 12th century French philosopher, interpreter and world traveler, understood the “worm” image as a moral message rather than as a symbol of weakness or of hidden strength. He asserts that the prophet used this image to make us aware of our humble origins. If we do not make use of our powers of reason to draw us closer to Torah and God’s ways then there is nothing that distinguishes us from the “lowly” worm. Only the life of Torah will make us worthy of the status as humans.
In the spirit of Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, may God give us the strength to deal with the gravity of the hour. In the spirit of Rabbi Yoseph Kaspi, may God give us the strength to use the Torah to ennoble our lives with the dignity of God’s ways.
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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