Parshat Reeh (Isaiah 54:11-55:5)
August 19, 2017 / 27 Av 5777
What is the role of the prophet? Is a prophet a soothsayer, a future teller or is a prophet someone who says what needs to be said when it needs to be said? This question can perhaps be answered by understanding a little of the history of this week’s haftarah. Modern biblical scholars speculate that the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah (40-66) are the product of a later prophet who prophesied during the period of Shivat Zion – the period of time when the exiled people of Judea returned from Babylonia. This means that the prophecies offered in this section of the book, instead of being messages offered to a people confronted by the onslaught of the Assyrians, like in the first part of the book, were meant to contend with the uncertainties of a people returning from Babylonian exile.
This may explain the religious hyperbole of the last few sentences of the haftarah: “Incline your ear and come to Me; Hearken and you will be revived. And I will make with you an everlasting covenant, the enduring loyalty promised to David. As I have made him a witness of peoples, a price and commander of peoples, so you will summon a nation you did not know and a nation that did not know you shall come running to you – for the sake of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel who has glorified you.” (55:3-5) This passage prophesies the reestablishment of the ideal Davidic kingship along with the centrality of the reestablished nation on the world scene. These promises of greatness and prominence to a beleaguered nation were meant to raise the morale of a people who had only recently come home to a land which had been violently wrested from them. It established a common purpose and an ideal and allowed them to reclaim their faith in God. The prophet challenged them in a way that they needed to hear.
In the following midrash, the prophecies of Jeremiah, the prophet of the destruction of Judea and the First Temple, are contrasted with those found in this second section of the book of Isaiah.: “Isaiah healed that which [Jeremiah] and others cursed: Jeremiah said: ‘How she has become as a widow’ (Lamentations 1:1); Isaiah retorted: ‘as a bridegroom rejoices over a bride’ (Isaiah 62:5); Jeremiah said: ‘How she has become as a tributary’ (Lam. 1:2) and Isaiah said: ‘so you will summon a nation you did not know and a nation that did not know you shall come running to you’ (Isaiah 55:5).” (abridged quote from an addendum to Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, Mandelbaum ed. p. 467)
One prophet offered a message meant to deal with his nation’s tragedy while the other redirected their goals and gave them hope when they needed to rebuild their lives. The prophet’s God-given role was to assess the needs of his nation and lead them along God’s path. This same role or a similar role should not be lost on those who call themselves leaders.