October 28, 2006
At the end of this week\’s haftarah, Israel is promised an eternal covenant in accord with the one offered David (see 2 Samuel 7) and a cosmic mission to redeem the world: \”Incline your ears and come to Me; Hearken and you shall be revived. And I shall me with you an eternal covenant, the eternal loyalty promised to David. As I made him a leader (Heb.: eid – literally \”witness\”) of peoples, a prince and commander of peoples, so you shall summon a nation you did not know, and a nation that you did not know shall come running to you for the sake of the Lord your God, The Holy One of Israel who has glorified you.\” (Isaiah 55:3-5 NJPS translation)
As the above translation indicates, this message was probably directed to the entire people. Earlier commentators, however, basing themselves on the context of this message, identified the subject of this message with the mashiach (messiah) – the anointed descendant of the House of David who would act as the future redeemer of the people of Israel and the world. An early indicator of this idea can be found in Targum Yonathan which translates verse 4 differently from the above translation: \”Behold a prince to the people, I (God) have appointed him king and ruler over all the nations.\” This translation led Rashi to detail the tasks of this leader, emphasizing his role as a witness (eid): \”He will be a minister and leader over them reproving and bearing witness regarding their ways before them.\” Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra made the actual identification with the mashiach, noting that he knew of no other figure who could be identified as a prince.
The following midrash (Eretz Yisrael 7th century) makes a fascinating association in this regard, actually identifying the \”leader/witness\” with David himself: \”To whom may David be compared? To a man who broke a limb and came to a doctor. The doctor was astonished and said to the patient: \’Your wound is great. I am truly sorry for you.\’ The man with the broken limb replied: \’You feel sorry for me? I only broke my limb so that you could collect a fee. So, too, David said to the Holy One Blessed Be He: \’For you alone have I sinned, so that you might say to sinners, \’why haven\’t you repented?\’ For if you accept me (David) after my sin, all sinners will come to terms with you. All of them will look at me and I will bear witness to them that You (God) accept the penitent. So God tells us: \’As I (God) made him (David) to bear witness; to all of the peoples I have given him.\’ (Isaiah 55:4)\” (Midrash Tehillim 51:3 Buber ed. p. 281)
David is seen here as a very different kind of messianic figure. He serves in this midrash as a paradigm for the possibility of repentance. If God will forgive David for a sin as grievous as his sin with Bathsheva after he showed remorse and repented then the doors of repentance are open to all without excuse. David, then, is a messianic figure of a different sort than we normally suppose in the Jewish tradition. He is a redemptive character precisely because he has sinned, repented and was ultimately forgiven by God proving that each of us share in the possibility to be redeemed.
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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