August 11, 2007
27 Av 5767
In this, the third of the haftarot of consolation – shiva denehamta, Isaiah offers the thirsty and hungry of Israel nourishment with the words: “Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money. Come buy (shivru) and eat, buy food without money (kesef), wine and milk without cost.” (Isaiah 55:1) His intention is not to offer them free food and drink. Rather, he is offering another kind of nourishment. Targum Yonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the prophetic books, interprets the verse: “Ho, all who want to learn, come and learn, and those without money, come, hear and learn; come hear and learn without money, for study is better than wine and milk.”
In his classic interpretive style, Rabbi Yitkhak Abrabanel , the Portuguese-Spanish statesman and exegete (14th century), raises a series of questions about this prophecy before proceeding to answer them in his commentary. In one of his questions, he notes a possible contradiction in the above verse. He notes that it is inconsistent to ask someone to buy something (shivru) without money. Abrabanel poses this question, in part, because it offers him an opportunity to tender a philologically and religiously creative answer.
He contends that this passage speaks of Jewish yearning to draw closer to God – that \”there are amongst us those who are hungry and thirsty not for bread and water but rather to hear the words of God, like the words of the poet: \’My soul thirsts for God – the living God\’. To these the prophet harkens: \’Ho, all who want to learn, come and learn.\’ – for the Torah is water… It is also aimed at people who have no desire at all for God\’s word. Why? [Here, Abrabanel advances an interesting etymological analysis.] The word \”kesef – silver\”, derives from a word meaning \”to yearn\”, since the metal silver causes people to yearn after it. Similarly, intense study of wisdom is called \’philosophy\’ which means the love or yearning for wisdom. This verse, then, according to the prophet is aimed at people who have no knowledge and no wisdom and no interest in God\’s word. The prophet urges them: \”Come, buy and eat\”, that is to say, even though you have no desire for it, still, \”Come, learn, toil over the study of Torah, then you will eat and enjoy it.\” This is what is meant when people say: \”If someone should say: \’I have toiled and I have not found – don\’t believe him.\” Why? Since the original meaning of the word \”shivru – buy\” is \”to break\”, only when you break yourself in your toil will you really appreciate its worth\” (adapted translation)
Abrabanel sees Isaiah\’s message as a call to invest oneself in the study of Torah. Its worth will be commensurate with the effort.