August 23, 2003
The messages of the prophets serve not only as a source of moral and spiritual inspiration but also as a window into the soul of those who have suffered the trials and tribulation of oppression, destruction and exile. We see in the words of inspiration offered by Isaiah, the dreams and aspirations of our people – a people whose physical and spiritual world had been destroyed and who yearned to retrieve it – a people described by Isaiah as an: “unhappy storm-tossed one, uncomforted.” (Isaiah 54:11) This people, “storm-tossed” after the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians, lived in exile, their homeland destroyed and desolate. What would their dream contain if not the hope of rebuilding their homes with unforeseen splendor: “I will lay carbuncles (a type of precious stone) as your building stones and make your foundations of sapphire. I will make you battlements (towers) of rubies, your gates of precious stones, the whole encircling wall of gems” (Ibid.)?
Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency, a 12th century French rationalist commentator, asserts that this prophecy is to be understood figuratively. He explains that for exiles whose homes have been destroyed and now live in tents, God has offered homes that are permanent like precious gems.
His commentary, while conforming to empirical reality, seems to me, to miss the point. The “storm-tossed” will not find comfort in reality. Their dreams reflect the prophet’s words as they were written. The sages of Talmudic times seem to have appreciated this better than Rabbi Eliezer perhaps because their lives, in the 3rd-4th centuries C.E after the destruction of the second Temple under Roman oppression, were not appreciably better than those of their brethren 600 years earlier. Roman oppression was in part economic. This is how they saw Isaiah’s prophecy of a Jerusalem rebuilt from precious stones: “’the encircling wall of gems’ – Said Rabbi Levi, ‘In the future the boundaries of Jerusalem will be marked for a circumference of twelve miles by eighteen miles by precious stones. For in this world if someone owes a debt to another person, he says to him, ‘Let us go to court’. Sometimes the judge makes peace between them and sometimes he is unsuccessful. The litigants rarely come out satisfied. But in the future, if someone owes a debt to another person and the other person says: ‘Let us go to the king-messiah in Jerusalem, when they reach the borders of Jerusalem, they find them covered with precious stones and pearls. So the one takes two of them and says to the other, ‘Do I owe you more than this?’ And the other says, ‘Not even this much! Let is be forgiven you, let it be released for you. [You do not owe anymore.]. (adapted from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 18:6 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 299-300)
Rabbi Levi’s story reflects his own romantic vision of how God’s redemptive power will relieve the problems of everyday life in a dramatic and miraculous way. These dreams, however fantastic, are the stuff upon which reality is ultimately built. They are the stuff that inspires a people to rebuild their homes after a hiatus of two thousand years.
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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