(Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23)
January 13, 2007
Isaiah\’s opening prophecy (27:6-12) promises God\’s beleaguered people that the punishment meted out to Israel for its sins will be measured in comparison to the punishment of their enemies. At the end of this prophecy, Isaiah describes the punishment that will come upon the city/nation that sins against God: \”Thus fortified cities lie desolate, homesteads deserted, forsaken like a wilderness; there calves graze, there they lie down and consume its boughs, when its crown is withered, they break; women come and make fires with them, for they are people without understanding; that is why their Maker will show no mercy, their Creator will deny them grace.\” (verses 10-11)
Who are the sinners referred to in these verses? According to Rashi, these verses describe God\’s punishment for Israel\’s enemy, Esau (Rome). Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provance), on the other hand, claims that these verses depict Israel\’s punishment for abandoning God. In particular, he asserts that Israel is the \”people without understanding\”: \”Israel is not a people with understanding, for if they had understanding, they would understand for themselves and discern that all the bad things that happen to them are caused by their abandoning God.\” Kimche\’s message, like Isaiah\’s before him, was intended for internal consumption. He hoped that his people would recognize the error of its ways and repent.
Kimche probably based himself on this rather bold interpretation of the end of the second verse: \”All those who have no understanding, it is forbidden to show them mercy, as it says: \’for they are a people without understanding; that is why their Maker will show them no mercy.\’ (Berachot 33a)
Rav Avraham Yitchak Kook (20th century Israel) offers an interesting analysis of this Talmudic passage: \”one who does not have the discernment to appreciate the significance of mercy might think that the application of mercy implies that one can totally disregard the application of justice and, as a result, the application of mercy has the potential to lead to chaos, for justice is a pillar upon which the existence of the world exists. But one who has discernment or understanding, even if you treat him or her with mercy, knows that justice must still be the principle rule of life, and that one must still strive to live justly, not depending on mercy. This is what we note from in this Rabbinic saying: \’Don\’t believe in evil\’, namely, if the evil inclination should say to you: Sin and God will forgive you, don\’t believe it, for the existence of the world depends on each of us striving to lead just lives. The discerning person is always aware how much mercy can be allotted, but will never depend on it because he or she recognizes the meaning of true completeness.\” (adapted from Ein Ayah Berachot Vol. 1 p. 157 sec. 94)
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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