(Isaiah 54:11-55:5, 1 Samuel 20:18,42*)
August 18, 2001
The consolation offered Israel in this week’s haftarah is clearly articulated. In the future, the people of Israel whose souls are weary from the trials and tribulations of the exile, will find comfort in a rebuilt Jerusalem. The appearance of the rebuilt city is awesome in its splendor. It is the picture of prosperity and wealth. “Unhappy, storm tossed one, uncomforted! I will lay stones of fair colors as your building stones and make your foundations of sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of precious stones, the whole encircling wall of gems.” (Isaiah 54:11-12)
Note however that this promise of prosperity is immediately tempered by two other conditions.
“And all of your children shall be taught of the Lord and great will be the peace of your children. In righteousness (tzedakah) you shall be established; stay far from oppression, so that you will not fear, and from ruin, for it will not come upon you.” (verses 13-14)
This second set of conditions has been interpreted a number of different ways. Rabbi Joseph Kara, an 11th century French Bible commentator who was a student and colleague of Rashi, understood Isaiah’s prophecy to be conditional. If you do acts of tzedakah and live just lives then you will live in prosperity and in safety. Rabbi Isaiah diTrani (the Riaz), a 13th century Italian sage, interpreted these statements not as conditions but as a continuation of the promises made by the prophet as a part of the restoration. When Jerusalem is rebuilt, it will be a glorious place filled with Torah study. It will be a place where you are safe from those who desire to harm you.
A modern commentator, Rabbi Amos Hacham (Daat Mikra), offers an alternative interpretation which incorporates elements of both of the above commentators. He indicates that the essential ingredient marking the redemption will be the righteous and just behavior of its inhabitants. These attributes will enable the city to thrive and prosper. Isaiah recognized that prosperity often leads to economic oppression. His prophecy was that Jerusalem would be rebuilt in all of its splendor without the oppression of either workers or the poor.
Isaiah’s consolation to Israel is framed as a warning. The outward signs of rebuilding no matter how beautiful are not in themselves a sign of God’s redemption. It is the quality of life which resonates from the rebuilt city which will mark God’s presence.
*In many synagogues the first and last verses from the haftarah “Mahar Hodesh” – the special haftarah for a Shabbat which precedes Rosh Hodesh will be read at the end of the haftarah of consolation in recognition that Sunday and Monday mark Rosh Hodesh Elul.