March 16, 2002
The second prophecy found in this week’s haftarah presents a radically different picture from that found in the first. The first prophecy challenges the disinterest in God found among the exiles from the kingdom of Judah. The second prophecy announces the uniqueness of God. In this prophecy, God makes the following pronouncement: “Who like Me [God] can announce, can foretell it and match Me thereby? Even as I told the future to an ancient people, so let him foretell coming events to them.” (Isaiah 44:7)
This verse was meant as a challenge to all of the false gods who caught the attention of the those who had been led astray from God. Since none of these false deities was capable of matching God’s ability to foretell the future, this statement was meant to prove God’s status over all of His contenders. How was God’s unique ability manifest? Radak, the 12th century Provencal Bible scholar, explained that since only God both spanned all of time and was responsible for creating the world, His ability to foretell world events could not be matched. Rabbi Joseph Kara, a 11th century French commentator, noted God’s special ability to decree events.
The “pshat” or simple meaning of this verse acknowledges that the major theological challenge in Biblical times came from people’s attraction to false deities. Isaiah’s challenge was to make the people aware of their religious delusions in following false gods. The following midrash make us aware that the religious challenges of each generation are somewhat different: “Rabbi Eliezer taught: The sections of Scripture are not arranged in their proper order. For if they were arranged in their proper order, and any person could read them, he or she would be able to resurrect the dead and perform other miracles. This is the reason that the proper order of Scripture is hidden from mortals and is known only to the Holy One Blessed be He, who said: ‘Who, as I, can read and declare it, and set it in order’ (Isaiah 44:7). (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 3:2 – Braude edition)
In this midrash, the verse from Isaiah is not quoted to defend God against false gods, but rather against the threat that comes from those who sought to use the Torah as a resource for prognostication and magic so that they might act like God. The midrash warns that God gave the Torah in such a way that this is not possible since only God is capable of these things. If the “idolatry” of Biblical times was false gods, the idolatry of rabbinic times was the deification of human beings who thought that they could use the Torah as a means for developing divine capabilities. It is interesting, in this light, to see certain circles today trying to use the Torah for the very things that this midrash warns against, whether they be “Torah codes”, foreseeing events, or the confirmation of certain modern ideologies. In all of these areas, we see an idolatrous attempt to deify the human being instead of God. Wise religious individuals will beware.
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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