Haftarah Parshat Ki Teitzei (Isaiah 54:1-55:5)
August 29, 2015/14 Elul 5775
With any given prophetic message we might raise the question of whether the prophet’s message was intended for his own contemporary audience or was it aimed at events far off into the future? This question is particularly relevant when reading the opening words of this week’s haftarah: “Shout, O barren one, you who bore no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who did not travail! For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused, said the Lord.” (54:1)
The intention of this verse was to offer solace to the children of Israel who have been exiled and seemingly rejected by God, but who will subsequently be blessed with unforeseen progeny. Consequently, the “barren one” and the “forlorn wife” are to be identified with Israel. If this is so, who does the “espoused wife” represent?
With the advent of modern biblical scholarship, this question was more easily answerable because we now know that the later part of the book of Isaiah (Chapter 40 onward) are a later book than the first section of Isaiah. The first part was written during the ascendancy of the Assyrian Empire while the latter section was written during the period of the return from Babylonian exile. If this is so, the prophet of the second part of the book referred to his own times and his message was intended to lend hope to those who were rebuilding the nation after having been exiled for seventy years. The “espoused wife”, then, referred to the surrounding nations which seemed stable and healthy compared to the fragile community of Judea that was being rebuilt.
The traditional commentators, however, were not privy to the knowledge of the origins of these chapters of Isaiah and assumed that they were written by the original prophet Isaiah. Consequently, they read the prophecy differently. Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, translated the end of this verse as: “For the woman who was childless, the children of the destroyed Jerusalem will be greater in number than the children of settled Rome.” The Targum read this prophecy as a message for future generations, since the Roman conquest of Judea was five hundred years into the future. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) provided the most elaborate take on this interpretation: “…This refers to Rome, in my opinion… for the kingdom of Ishmael (the Muslims) though it was powerful, was [ultimately] overcome by the kingdom of Rome.” Kimche’s interpretation took into account history as he knew it.
What should one take away from this discussion? It seems to me that the message is twofold. First, the plain sense (pshat) message of the prophet was one of hope in the face of despair. Clearly that was a message understood by all of its readers. The second message though is also significant. The understanding of all texts involves both the author and the reader. The background of each reader is critical to his or her understanding of the prophet’s message. All future readers of any text must be aware that when they read a text, their understanding will always be colored by who they are. This is a valuable lesson in interpretation and an equally important lesson in self-awareness.