(Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:2-3)
January 9, 2010
23 Tevet 5770
Isaiah was witness to the disintegration – moral, religious and political – of the northern kingdom, Israel. This breakdown rent the fabric of its society until the nation could no longer hold itself together. It happened at a particularly inopportune time since the nation was also threatened from the north by the Assyrian empire led by Tiglath-Pillasar III. Isaiah linked the nation\’s degeneration to its geo-political fate at the hands of the Assyrians, warning them that their lack of values would ultimately lead to their destruction. (See Bright, A History of Israel, pp. 271-2)
In particular, Isaiah singled out the wanton behavior of the nation\’s leadership: \”Ah, the proud crowns of the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is but wilted flowers on the heads of men bloated with rich food, who are overcome by wine! Lo, my Lord has something strong and mighty, like a storm of hail, a shower of pestilence, something like a storm of massive and torrential rain shall be hurled with force to the ground. Trampled under foot shall be the proud crowns of the drunkards of Ephraim, the wilted flowers on the heads of men bloated with rich food, that are his glorious beauty, they shall be like an early fig before the fruit harvest; whoever sees it devours it while it is still in his hand.\” (28:1-4 NJPS translation)
Isaiah likens the Assyrian conquest to a storm sent by God to punish the Israelite nation (Ephraim) for their corrupt and immoral behavior. Rabbi Helbo, in the Talmud, describes the northern kingdom\’s decadence and subsequent downfall in these words: \”The wine (hamra) of Perugita and the water of Diomsit cut off the Ten Tribes from Israel.\” (Shabbat 147b) Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) explains: \”Isaiah speaks about the people of Ephraim, regarding the tribes which have yet to be exiled, who indulged themselves in excessive pleasures, busying themselves exclusively in food and drink and the pleasures (of anointing) with fragrant oils, to the point of drunkenness and vomiting, in the ways of drunks. They indulge in pleasures to the point of forgetting God and His commandments.\” (Adapted translation)
Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (Maharal – Prague 16th century) derives a spiritual message from this teaching. The word for wine in Aramaic (hamra) sounds similar to the word \”homer\”, medieval Hebrew\’s word for the material. He asserts that overindulgence in the material world separates a person from the transcendent world of the holy. Excessive concern with the body and intemperate use of things that alter the mind tend to lead people away from God and away from that middle way which is the essence of Jewish living. This is what led to the doom of the Ten Tribes. This same lack of moderation can have similar ill effects in our day. (See Hidushei Agaddah on Shabbat 147b)
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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