August 30, 2003
This week’s haftarah, the fourth of the seven haftarot of consolation (shiva d’nehamta) emphasizes the idea of a national transformation from being a broken and exiled nation to again regaining the nobility of return and national independence. Isaiah’s language is redolent with images of a national reawakening: “Awake, awake, rise up, O Jerusalem” (Isaiah 51:17); “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion, put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city” (Ibid. 52:1); “Shake the dust from yourself, arise and sit down, O Jerusalem” (Ibid. 2). In the verses which follow, Isaiah announces the impetus for this national renaissance: “For this said the Lord God: ‘Of old, My people went down to Egypt to dwell there, but the Assyrians oppressed them without cause. What therefore do I [God] gain here?, declares the Lord. For My people has been carried off for nothing, their mockers howl, declares the Lord.” (Ibid. 4-5) (adapted from the NJPSA translation)
In this last verse, God asks what He has to gain from the exile of His people. This verse, which is difficult to understand from the Hebrew let alone to translate, reads literally: “What am I [God] doing here?” In other words, God is asking here a rhetorical question: “Why am I here in exile with My people? It would be much better for Me to redeem them from this awful predicament.” This verse is taken by some commentators to refer to the Babylonian exile (586 BCE) while other commentators see it as a prophecy concerning the much later Roman destruction of the Temple and the consequent exile of much of the community. In either case, the theological significance of this interpretation is tremendous. God actually goes with His people into exile. He does not leave them alone in their suffering. Their exile is His exile. Their pain is His pain. Their embarrassment is His embarrassment. Consequently, the national rehabilitation of the Jewish people is also in God’s interest.
This idea is expressed poignantly in the following midrash: Rabbi Yudan told a parable of a pregnant woman who quarreled with her mother so much so that they could not bear to be in the same room together. When it came time for the woman to give birth, her mother was up stairs and she was downstairs. As she groaned with pain downstairs, the woman’s mother screamed upstairs. The neighbors asked the mother: ‘Why are you screaming? Are you giving birth?’ She responded: ‘Isn’t my daughter in pain? How can I bear her screaming, so I scream with her. Her anguish is my anguish.’ So, too, when the Temple was destroyed, crying and weeping was heard throughout the world…. The ministering angels asked God: ‘Can crying and weeping exist in Your presence?’… God replied: ‘Is not My Temple destroyed? Are not My children in chains? How can I not be in anguish?’…Is it not written: ‘Now, therefore, what am I doing here? Said the Lord… My people is taken away… Their mockers howl… and My name is continually blasphemed.’ (verse 5)” (abridged and adapted from Midrash Tehillim 20:1)
It is comforting to know that when we are in trouble, God shares in our troubles. We are not alone. He will give us the strength to triumph.
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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