(Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23)
January 17, 2004
The book of Exodus established the ideas of redemption and homecoming as major religious themes in the Jewish tradition. These two themes also find expression in Isaiah’s message: “And it shall come to pass on that day that a great shofar shall be sounded and those who were lost in the land of Assyria shall come and they who were dispersed in the land of Egypt; and they shall worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 27:13)
This verse prompts two questions: 1. Who are the dispersed people who need to be redeemed?; 2. What is the time framework for the redemption mentioned in this verse? The prophecy itself does not specify who specifically the exiles are or what will be the time frame for their redemption. The exiles, however, were to be found in all parts of the world as it was known to Israelites at the time and the redemption was to be a messianic event in its scope. Chronologically speaking, Isaiah probably had the exiles from the Northern Kingdom (the ten lost tribes) in mind. Rashi follows this identification. He identifies these exiles who were “lost in the land of Assyria” with the ten lost tribes who are stranded on the other side of the legendary Sambatyon river, which flowed six days a week but not on Shabbat making it impossible for the tribes to return on their own.
Rashi’s identification is derived from a passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 110b). The Mishnah records the following debate: The Ten tribes will not return, for it says: ‘and cast them into another land as is this day’ (Deuteronomy 39:27): Just as the day goes and does not return, so they too went and will not return. This is the view of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Eliezer [diagreed with Rabbi Akiba]: ‘As this day’: Just as the day becomes dark and then becomes light again, so, too, the tribes – even as it went dark for them, so it will become light for them. The Talmud brings a baraitha (another teaching from the period of the Mishnah) to elaborate on this Mishnah: “Our Rabbis taught: ‘The ten tribes have no portion in the world to come. And the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation’ (Ibid.) – ‘And the Lord rooted them out of their land’ refers to this world; ‘and cast then into another land’ (Ibid.) refers to the world to come. This is the opinion of Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Simon ben Judah of Kfar Acco said on Rabbi Simon’s authority [interpreted like Rabbi Eliezer in the Mishnah] : If their deeds are as ‘this day’s’ (Ibid.), they will not return, otherwise they will return. Rabbi [Judah Hanasi] ( – the leader of the Jewish community and author of the Mishnah) [offers a third opinion using the verse from our haftarah as proof]: They will enter into the world to come: And it shall come to pass on that day that a great shofar shall be sounded and those who were lost in the land of Assyria shall come and they who were dispersed in the land of Egypt; and they shall worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 27:13)
This debate over the fate of the “lost tribes” points up a disagreement over the possibility of human beings to be redeemed from the effects of their own transgressions. Rabbi Akiba seems to hold that there are certain types of transgressions that are so grave that there is no possibility for future redemption. He views the sins of the ten lost tribes, which included disloyalty to God, in this category. Rabbi Eliezer puts the responsibility for redemption in the hands of each person. If a person continues to sin then their fate is sealed but if they change [do teshuva] then redemption is theirs. Rabbi put the fate of the tribes totally in God’s hands. Just as God exiled the tribes for their sins, so, too, he will redeem them as He sees fit so that they will resume their intimate relationship with Him.