August 9, 2003
This week’s haftarah marks the first of seven special haftarot of consolation (shiva d’nehamtah) which follow Tisha b’Av. These haftarot, all taken from the book of Isaiah, offer words of comfort and the hope of redemption to a people troubled by destruction and exile. The midrash, Eichah Rabbah (the midrash on the book of Lamentations) offers this insight into the relationship between the tragic message of the prophet of the destruction, Jeremiah, and the prophetic message of hope found in the book of Isaiah: “And the rabbis said: ‘Since the people sinned from Aleph (the first letter of the alphabet) to Tav (the last letter) so, too, God’s message of consolation extends from Alef to Tav. You find as well that all of Jeremiah’s harsh prophecies against Israel were preceded by Isaiah’s prophecies of healing.. [The midrash then goes through a list of every verse of the first chapter of Lamentations and offers an antidote in the form of a verse from Isaiah. The following is the exchange for the letter ‘dalet’.] [In the book of Lamentations], Jeremiah said: ‘The ways of Zion (darchai Tzion) do mourn.’ Isaiah said: ‘A voice rings out: Clear in the desert a way (derech) for the Lord.’ (Isaiah 40:3) (1:23 – adapted translation)
This verse from Isaiah forms the introduction to the second prophecy of this week’s haftarah. What is its message? Whose ‘voice rings out’? Who is the message aimed at? These questions have prompted an interesting exchange of opinions among the commentators. According to Rashi, the “voice” carrying God’s message is that of the Holy Spirit. The message is to clear the way to Jerusalem so that God will be able to return the exiles to their homes. Rabbi David Kimche, the 12th century Provencal commentator, interprets this verse figuratively: “It is as if a voice called out telling people to prepare themselves because they will find an already paved path in the desert made as if it had been cleared and paved by people.” Kimche’s message was similar to Rashi’s, however, it was understood allegorically by non-Jews to support their opinion that the laws of the Torah had been abrogated by someone who had made a “new path” through desert.
Consequently, Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish statesman, philosopher and exegete, took Kimche to task for his interpretation and offered a totally different interpretation to counter the possible misunderstanding created by Kimche’s interpretation: “The call that was made to Jerusalem was: ‘There will not be ‘new’ commandments. Rather, there will forever be only that Torah and those commandments which were commanded by the “original voice” in the Sinai desert. And if you listen to My (God’s) voice and observe My covenant by refraining from sin – the voice which originally called upon you to observe the Torah and commandments will call upon you now to prepare a path for God’s redemption. (abridged and adapted)
Abrabanel’s interpretation makes redemption a partnership between God and human beings. We must pave the path for God to redeem us. The mitzvot constitute this path. They are our strength and comfort both in good times and bad.
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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