August 19, 2006
Getting at the exact meaning of Scripture is often a daunting task. Often the meaning of certain words is difficult to ascertain. Sometimes trying to tease the exact context of the statement out of the text is difficult. Determining the historical circumstances of a statement is also no less difficult. After noting the preponderance of questions which we can raise, the prophetic message still augurs for us a vital way to interact with the messages of our tradition. The key word here is \’interact\’ because the religious experience which flows from the text is really the expression not only of what the text actually says but also how we interpret it. Our interpretations reflect not only our best attempts to discern what the text says but also how the text reflects our concerns and our way of looking at the world.
In this week\’s haftarah, the third of the seven special haftarot of consolation (shiva denehamta) following Tisha b\’Av, Isaiah\’s prophecy includes one of these difficult verses which can be interpreted any number of different ways: \”Surely no harm can be done (gor yagur) without My consent (efes mei-otee): whoever would harm you (gar eetah) shall fall because of you.\” (54:15)
Two questions are relevant to our discussion: 1. How should \”gor yagur\” be understood? 2. What is the meaning of \”efes mei-otee\”?
Our first problem involves interpreting the word \”gor – gimel, vav, reish) which has three normative definitions: 1. sojourn or dwell; 2. gather together to quarrel or do harm; 3. dread or fear. The above translation chose the second definition of this word but as we will see, each of these definitions offers a possible interpretation of this sentence.
Targum Yonathon, the 7th century Aramaic translation of this verse, offers a variation on this interpretation: \”When the exiles of your people shall gather together unto you; then the enemies of your people will gather to harm you, Jerusalem, but in your midst your enemies will fall.\” Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provance) accepts the Targum\’s interpretation but adds his own nuance based on the phrase \”efes me-otee\”: \”The enemies that will gather against Israel [at the end of time], namely Gog and Magog, will not come at My [God\’s] command but rather on their own, unlike other times when I [God] sent nations for Israel\’s own good to chasten them. This time vengeance will be taken from them for God\’s glory.\” (Adapted translation) A modern scholar, A. Ehrlich (19th-20th century Germany, United States), also put himself in this camp: \”A nation which wages war without My (God\’s) authorization, will ultimately accompany you (join your ranks?).\” (Mikra Kipeshuto, Prophets, p. 128) Ehrlich exhibits the modern \’messianic\’ spirit of universalism in his interpretation.
Rashi offers a different interpretation of this verse: \”They [the enemies of Israel] shall surely fear for I am not with them.\” A variation on this interpretation is picked up by a modern interpreter: \”It is fitting that no one should fear [from anything] except from Me [God]; is there anyone amongst you [in Jerusalem] who fears that enemies will fall upon you?\” (A. Hacham, Isaiah, Daat Mikra, pp. 585-6) This interpretation uses the third definition of \”gur\”, noted above. One must assume that Hacham\’s interpretation, if correct, was intended to instill confidence in those returning exiles who were loyal to God. It might also serve as an inspiration to Hacham\’s contemporaries in Israel.
Rabbi Joseph Kara, a contemporary of Rashi, adopted the first definition of \”gur\”, namely, \”to dwell\”: \”Those who surely dwell amongst you even though they have fallen away from God, namely, those who dwell amongst you and have been exiled along with you, they also shall ultimately dwell together with you in Jerusalem. Who are these? This refers to converts.\” (Adapted translation) Kara\’s interpretation is based on a Talmudic interpretation of this verse which maintains that converts should only be accepted to the Jewish people when it is difficult to be a Jew in order to establish their loyalty. If they are willing to be Jewish when it is difficult, they certainly will be worthy to join Israel in the time of the redemption. (See Yevamot 24b) Kara, then, envisions the redemption, taking in all who are inspired by God\’s spirit.
Any of these interpretations would be a welcomed sign of God\’s consolation for his people.