September 10, 2005
In this fourth of the seven haftarot of consolation, Isaiah consoles Israel with the knowledge that God is superior to all of Israel\’s enemies because their existence is ephemeral while God is supreme in power as evidenced by the fact that He \”stretched forth the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth\”. (Isaiah 51:13) Isaiah continues his description of God\’s awesome power: \”For I am the Lord your God who stirs up the sea into roaring waves, whose name is the Lord of Hosts.\” (Verse 15)
This verse is obviously intended to express God\’s awesome power in order to affirm His ability to overturn Israel\’s oppressors. One midrash associates this verse with God\’s manipulation of the sea to rescue the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. (see Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 19:6 Mandelbaum ed. p. 308) Unfortunately, we do not always experience the beneficent nature of God\’s creative power. Sometimes, the \”roaring waves\” overcome us and we are so overwhelmed that we do not what to answer or how to contend with what appears to us to be nature\’s malevolent side. We thrust our hands into the air and cry out and still we do not understand. Answers are not readily available.
The following verse may offer us a clue: \”I have put My words in your mouth and have sheltered you with My hand; I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth, have said to Zion: You are My people.\” (Verse 16) The *midrash mentioned above connects this verse with a famous mishnah: Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the remnants of the Great Assembly. He would say: \’On three things the world endures: Torah, deeds of loving kindness, and the Temple service\’ (Avot 1:2) Rabbi Joshua of Sikhnin in the name of R. Levi: \’I have put My words in your mouth.\’ – this refers to words of Torah; \’I have covered you in the shadow of My hand\’ – this refers to acts of loving kindness. This teaches that who ever occupied him/herself with the study of Torah and with acts of loving kindness gains the merit of taking refuge in the shadow of the Holy One blessed be He\’; \’that I may plant the heavens and lay the foundations of the earth\’ – this refers to the offerings (or, in our day, prayer)… (p. 308-9)
Upon reflection, this midrash offers a programmatic answer to the painful quandary that sometimes confronts us living in this world. The Divine imperative, according to Shimon the Righteous\’ mishnah and Rabbi Joshua of Sikhnin\’s reading of Isaiah\’s message, is that human beings are obliged to act. Torah study, acts of loving kindness, and worship will enable us to restore the world and ensure its continued existence.
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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