Shabbat Rosh Hodesh
October 16, 2004
The special haftarah, for a Shabbat which coincides with Rosh Hodesh, offers up an interesting metaphor for God’s promise of merciful treatment to His people: “As a mother comforts her son so I will comfort you…” (Isaiah 66:13) This image is, to say the very least, provocative. God’s relationship with His subjects is described in dramatically anthropomorphic terms. God is portrayed as a parent. Even more striking, in a religion where male imagery is the norm, Isaiah chose to compare God’s love for His people to a mother’s uncompromised love for her child.
Why does a religion which professes such a vehement abhorrence of idolatrous images of God not shy away from picturesque portrayals like Isaiah’s? The comparison of God to a nurturing parent serves two vital religious purposes. Since human beings know of no relationship which is more caring and more nurturing than that of a parent, it should not be surprising to see God described in the role of a caring father or a nurturing mother. These descriptions allow us to develop a sense of intimacy with God in a way that would be impossible otherwise. Human beings need these concrete portrayals as tools in our quest for understanding how God works. This reason, by itself, is sufficient to explain the bold nature of the use of such language to describe God. This also might explain why the Aramaic translation of the Prophets, Targum Yonathon (~7th century), tries to ameliorate this tension in its translation of this verse by associating this metaphor with God’s word instead of God directly: “As a mother comforts her son so My [God’s] word will comfort you..”
Why did Isaiah chose the particular metaphor of a caring mother? Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) asserts that it is because women show exceptional mercy to their own children. Consequently there is no greater symbol of mercy than a mother to which to compare God.
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (United States 20th century) points out another important insight regarding this comparison. Not only does it give human beings insight into God’s nature in an easily understandable way, it also provides a God-inspired model of how human beings should act. If God is merciful in this way, we too, should follow God’s example. (see Adam u’beito, p. 148) In this case, God models motherly love which we all should learn to emulate.
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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