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Lekh Lekha 5774

Haftarah Parshat Lekh Lekha
(Isaiah 40:27-41:16)
October 12, 2013
8 Heshvan 5774

This week’s haftarah was likely selected to accompany Parshat Lech Lecha on account of the midrashic association of Abraham with the verse: “Who has roused a victor from the east, summoned him to service?” (41:2) While Isaiah most likely intended this verse to refer to Cyrus, the Persian king who overcame the Babylonians and freed Judea from subjugation, still, other elements of its message resonate with Abraham’s image as the founder of the great monotheistic tradition. If Abraham is acclaimed by the Jewish tradition as the great “iconoclast” who liberated God from enslavement to the natural realm, it was Isaiah’s message which removed God from temporal restraints: “He who announced the generations (korei hadorot) from the start – I, the Lord, who was the first and will be the last as well.” (41:4) (See Professor Yochanan Muffs, The Personhood of God, p. 13)

What is implied in the words: “He who announced the generations from the start”? According to Professor Shalom Paul, this verse informs us that God makes known in advance what will happen. He sets forth the periods of time and the events in every generation as He does here by announcing the emergence of Cyrus as king. (Isaiah 40-66, Mikra L’Yisrael, pp. 116-7) In the words of Rabbi Joseph Kara (13th France): “He called forth Cyrus before he was born, well before the future when he would come into existence; even before the king of Babylonia arose and who would in the future destroy the Temple. It is he who I called ’Cyrus, My shepherd’ who will fulfill all that I desire.” For this particular worldview, God is freed from the constraints of time and events because He has predetermined their outcome.

In the Mishnah, Rabbi Akiva applies this verse to those things about human existence which seem predetermined: “He (Rabbi Akiva) used to say: The father transmits to the son physical attractiveness and strength and wealth and wisdom and years and the number of generations before the end (of time) for it is said: ‘He announced the generations from the start.’ (excerpted from Eduyot 2:9)

Both Isaiah’s prophecy and Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation rescue God from the constraints of time since both presented God as the author of the world’s events both large and small. This viewpoint, though, creates another theological problem. What about free will? Rabbi Akiva captures this anomaly in a seemingly self-contradictory Mishnah: “Everything is foreseen and freewill is given” (Avot 3:15) This philosophical dialectic is not easily resolvable. It is a religious dynamic which is basic to our lives and goes to show that from our perspective, not all questions have simple answers.

About This Commentary

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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