Parshat Bereishit (Isaiah 42:5-43:10)
October 14, 2017 / 24 Tishre 5778
Prophets were likely to be very unpopular characters. They frequently said things that people did not want to hear in ways which were often particularly painful. One can only imagine how the following opening prophecy of Isaiah’s went over with the public: “Hear, indeed, but do not understand; see, indeed, but do not grasp. Dull that people’s mind, stop its ears and seal its eyes – lest seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears, it also grasps with its mind and repents and saves itself.” (6:9-10) God’s intention in this prophecy was to punish the children of Israel for their disloyalty by removing the possibility to repent.
Some hundred or so years later, this very imagery was used again in a message to the Babylonian exiles who seemed incapable of understanding the reasons for their exile: “(18) Listen you who are deaf; you blind ones, look up and see! (19) Who is so blind as My servant, so deaf as the messenger that I send? Who is so blind as the chosen one, so blind as the servant of the Lord? (20) Seeing many things, he gives no heed, with ears open, he hears nothing.” (42:18-20)
Making sense of this prophecy is not a simple task. A modern Israeli biblical scholar, Amos Hacham chose to read it as a dialogue, a bitter exchange between the prophet and his audience. The prophet presents the exiles with his truth and they, in turn, roiled by his message, throw his words back at him. He calls them blind and deaf (18) and they retort in kind, calling him blind and deaf (19)! The prophet, in return, informs them that even though they see and hear, they are deaf to the coming redemption from exile (20).
At this point, the prophet declares the greatness of the moment and what God truly desires for them: “(21) The Lord desires His [servant’s] vindication, that he (the servant – Israel) may magnify and glorify [God’s] Torah.” Unfortunately, the people’s senses were impaired by their experiences and their “vindication” was lost as a consequence: “(22) Yet it is a people plundered and despoiled: all of them are trapped in holes from now on…” (See A. Hacham, Isaiah, Daat L’mikra, pp. 451-3)
It is bracing to be called “deaf and blind”, lacking a basic awareness of one’s situation. Few of us are willing to listen to such a message. Yet, it was this lack of awareness which stood between the people and their redemption in the days preceding the return from Babylonian exile.
Isaiah asks us to make it a religious mandate to be aware and discerning, to pay attention to what goes on around us. Who knows? God’s message might be staring us in the face, reminding us of what we should do, if only we would see and listen.
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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