August 25, 2001
In the verses which precede this week’s haftarah, the children of Israel challenge God with the following words: “Awake, awake, clothe Yourself with splendor, O arm of the Lord! Awake as in days of old, as in former ages!… It was you who dried up the sea.” (Isaiah 51:9-10). With these words, Isaiah captures the religious insecurity of the people in the face of the severe conditions which faced them. They implore God to act as He did when He redeemed them from Egypt, implying that they feared God might not save them.
God’s response to Israel’s challenge is not long in coming. His message is two-fold. He comforts them with the opening words of the haftarah. “I, I am He who comforts you! What ails you that you fear from man who is mortal, or from the son of man who shall be made as grass … For I am the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea into roaring waves, whose name is the Lord of Hosts” (verses 12;15). Yet He also admonishes them with the following advice which echoes their words to Him: “Awake, awake, O Zion! Cloth yourselves in splendor, put on your robes of majesty, Jerusalem, holy city!… Arise shake off your dust, sit [on your throne], Jerusalem remove the bonds from your neck, O captive one, Fair Zion!” (Isaiah 52:1-2)
Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish statesman and Bible commentator who lived through the Expulsion of the Jews from both Portugal and Spain, recognized the significance of these two responses. He noted that whereas the children of Israel challenge God to rescue them by using the image of His “arm”, God instead comforts them by offering His whole being. The comfort that God offers is therefore all-encompassing. He also saw in God’s exhortation to the children of Israel to regain their dignity, a call for them to shake off the dust of the exile and take up the requisite courage to be a part of the rebuilding.
This exhortation also forms the basis for the forth stanza of Rabbi Shlomo Alkabez’s famous Shabbat hymn – “Lecha Dodi”. Alkabetz, himself an exile from Spain, calls upon Jerusalem to put on her robes of majesty. Who are these robes? “Ami – my people”. (Jacobson – Netiv Binah) The children of Israel have a religious obligation to become the “robes of majesty” which will cloth the redeemed Jerusalem. In every generation the maintenance of the Jewish people and its tradition have been founded upon faith and courage. This generation should be no different. Jerusalem cannot be rebuilt without them.
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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