September 3, 2005
Isaiah opens his message, which is intended to comfort Israel, with a description of the nation\’s troubled condition: \”Afflicted one (aniah), storm-tossed one (soarah), uncomforted (lo nuhamah)!\” (Isaiah 54:11) If we dissect this sentence, we are left with three disturbingly different nuances of the nation\’s difficulties. \”Aniah\” conjures up a sense of being oppressed, humiliated, tortured and degraded; \”soarah\” – a sense of being tossed around, homeless and without rest; and \”Lo nuhamah\” – the existential sense of loneliness without anyone to offer comfort. (Amos Hacham, Daat Mikra – Isaiah, p. 583 based partially upon Targum Yonathon) These words capture very well the feelings of a people exiled from their homes, left to wander about, with a sense that no one cares about their fate.
As if these associations were not sufficiently troubling, the sages who composed the following midrash (3rd-4th century Eretz Yisrael) saw in these descriptions a clue to the malaise which brought about this awful state: \”Afflicted one\” – afflicted by the absence of righteous people; afflicted by the absence of Torah; afflicted by the absence of mitzvoth and good deeds. \”Storm-tossed\” – thrown about, a nation that the nations of the world have tossed around, as it is written: \’Remember, O Lord, concerning the children of Edom, the day of Jerusalem, how they cried out: raze her, raze her about to her very foundations.\’ (Psalm 137:7) (Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 18:2 Mandelbaum ed. p. 294)
This midrash sees exile as both a spiritual and a physical state. Israel\’s troubled exile is not just an affliction caused by outside powers inflicting their will on a poor overpowered victim state. It is also caused by the breakdown of the spiritual life of the nation. It is also exile when the nation exhibits an absence of moral and spiritual behavior.
A later midrash (7th century) opens with an even more tragic application of Isaiah\’s description of Israel\’s condition. It puts Isaiah\’s words into the mouth of Israel\’s enemies as their response to God when God demands that they allow the rebuilding of the Temple: \”Said Rabbi Judah: Said the Holy One blessed be He to the nations of the world: You have already built your houses of idol worship, yet when I say to you, build Jerusalem, you quote to Me the verse [from Isaiah]: \’Afflicted, storm-tossed and not to be comforted.\’ [My (God\’s) answer to you [the nations]: \’You may excuse as nothing the counsel of the lowly but the Lord is his refuge.\’ (Psalm 14:6) Will you continue to quote the verse from Psalms: \’you have put them to shame because God has rejected them?\’ (Psalm 53:6) [Because I (God) anticipated your response,] it was already said long ago: \’I will never reject them!\’ (Leviticus 26:44) (Adapted from Midrash Tehillim 53:2 Buber ed. p. 289)
The outcome of this midrash like Isaiah\’s prophecy is positive. God\’s answer to the nations in this midrash is that Israel has not been rejected. This message is significant not only the nations but for Israel as well. It is a reminder that the nation\’s exile is not permanent. All it takes to end physical or spiritual exile is the realization that we are not alone. God is with us in all of our endeavors to rebuild both our national life and our inner lives as well.
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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