August 14, 2004
This week’s haftarah ends on a messianic note, announcing the pretensions of the house of David to ultimate leadership: “Incline your ear and come unto Me [God]; Listen 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 [David] an “eid – witness (NJPS: leader) of peoples, a prince and commander of people…” (Isaiah 55:3-4)
In this verse, David is described as an “eid”, literally a \”witness\” to the nations. Targum Yonathan, the seventh century Aramaic translation of the Prophetic books, basing itself on the second part of the verse, translates this word as “leader”. This interpretation fits in well with the messianic sense of the passage. Other commentators, however, retain the word’s literal meaning. This, of course, presents them with a bit of a problem since they now have to explain in what way David is a “witness” to the nations. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provance) asserts that the messianic leadership role involves warning or acting as a witness to the people of their wrongdoings. Similarly, Rabbi Joseph Kara (12th century France) maintains that one who commands is called a witness.
Midrash Tehillim (7th century Eretz Yisrael) posits perhaps the most unusual interpretation based on the understanding of the word “eid” in this verse as witness. It links the verse in Isaiah with the story of David and Bathsheva, where David is involved in the sin of adultery. In Psalm 51, David makes a penitent plea for Divine pardon, saying in part: “Against You [God] (lecha), You alone, have I sinned.” (Psalm 51:6) The word “lecha” can, of course, also mean “for your sake.” This presents us with the outrageous possibility that David said to God: “For You, You alone have I sinned.” The sages toy with this possibility and its religious implications in the following midrash: “To whom may David be compared? To a man who broke a limb and came to a doctor. The doctor was astonished and said: ‘The break is terrible. I really feel sorry for you.’ The patient said: ‘You feel sorry for me. But I only broke it so that I might provide you with a fee.’ So, too, David said to the Holy One Blessed be He: ‘For You,You alone, have I sinned.’ For if You accept my repentance, then when You [God] ask sinners: ‘Why haven’t you repented?’, all of them will submit to You, for they have looked upon me [David]. I bear witness to the entire world that You [God] accept the penitent. And so the Holy One Blessed be he said: ‘Behold I have made him a witness to the peoples.” (Isaiah 55:4) And God made not only me [David] a witness, but also all of Israel, since it is said: ‘You [Israel] are my witnesses, said the Lord, and My servant whom I have chosen’ (Isaiah 43:10) (Midrash Tehillim 51:3)
What prompted the sages to create such a bold dialogue between David and God? Probably it was their great commitment to the power of repentance. David, who sinned grievously, provided an almost “messianic” model of the power of repentance. If God forgave David, then all of us have a chance to be redeemed. This is an important message, especially now as we move into the month of Elul, the season of repentance.
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.
The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp.
Rabbi Joel Roth, Rosh Yeshiva Emeritus .
Sponsors – The Conservative Yeshiva would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary: