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Noah 5773

Haftarah Parshat Noah
(Isaiah 54:1-55:5)
October 20, 2012
4 Heshvan 5773

At the end of this week’s haftarah, God promises the restored Israel, after its return from Babylonian exile, that its leader, David (or one of his progeny), would serve as “a leader (ed l’umim), a prince and a commander of peoples”. (NJPS – 55:4)

The word “ed” usually means “witness”, but in this case a different meaning seems to be in order. The above translation was probably based on the interpretation of Targum Jonathon, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the prophets, which translated “ed l’umim “ as “rav ammamaiya” – the leader of the people – interpreting this verse within its historical context, namely that a new leader would emerge for the returning community. This definition is also adopted by Rashi and would seem to be the interpretation most fitting to the context of the prophet’s message. Rabbi Joseph Kara, a younger contemporary of Rashi, offers a similar interpretation of this idiom. He asserts that “ed” means “commander” which in this case would mean a king. Others, though, see this prophecy as speaking about the end of time. Both Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra and Rabbi David Kimche identify “ed l’umim” with the Messiah who would herald the ultimate redemption.

The most provocative interpretation of this verse that I noted is found in a midrash which interprets the word “ed” in this verse to mean “witness”: “To whom can David be compared? To a man who broke a limb and went to see a doctor. The doctor was astonished at the injury and said: ‘What a terrible break! I really feel sorry for you.’ The man with the injury remarked: ‘What are you so sorry about, doc? Wasn’t my limb broken for your sake, since the fee for fixing it will be yours?’ The same is true of David, who said to the Holy One, Blessed be He: ‘For your sake I have sinned (Psalm 51:6), for if You take me back, You will be able to say to sinners: ‘Why haven’t you repented?’ All of the sinners will to return to you for they will see me and I will bear witness that You, indeed, accept back those who repent. This is what God means when He says: ‘Behold, I have made him (David) a witness to the nations (ed l’umim)” (Isaiah 55:4).” (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 51:3 Buber ed. p. 281)

This midrash makes the outrageous claim that David sinned (with Bathsheba) in order that he should repent and be accepted in return by God so that he could provide testimony to all that repentance is possible. This extraordinary interpretation makes plain that the tradition wants everyone to know that sin does not stand in the way of repair. No one is beyond God’s concern. If it was possible for David, it is possible for all.

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.

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