March 27, 2004
If the Torah’s approach to improper human behavior was to establish a means by which people could expiate their sins through the sacrificial order, Isaiah’s prophetic message, in contrast, was largely exhortative. He challenged the people to recognize their wrongdoing and prodded them to alter their ways. His admonitions were often biting and were meant to arouse awareness of the implications of their actions. So it is when God, wearied by the people’s disloyalty and ingratitude, demands that the people defend themselves against these charges. The people, unable to defend themselves, face God’s harsh prosecutory accusations and their consequences: “Your earliest ancestor sinned and your spokesmen transgressed against Me [God]. So I profaned the holy princes; I abandoned Jacob to ‘insult’ and Israel to mockery.” (Isaiah 43:27-28)
When God presented his accusations, he recounted not only the people’s current sins which the people either did not recognize or refused to acknowledge, but also reminded them that it was impossible for them to be blameless since it was in their very nature to sin – “your earliest ancestor sinned”. To whom might Isaiah be referring here? The earliest recorded identification of this “earliest ancestor” is with Adam. (see Avot d’Rabbi Natan version B, Shechter (Kister) ed. p. 51; also Rabbi David Kimche) The implications of this identification are obvious. As Kimche points out, God means to explain to the people: “How can you not have sinned, for didn’t your first ancestor sin? For sin is inherent in man.” This particular interpretation, if accurate, was intended, in a rhetorical fashion, to coax the people into repenting. However, since Christianity adopted this interpretation in such a radical way, rendering people totally incapable of changing their character because of this ‘genetic’ flaw, many of the Jewish commentators turned their backs on this particular identification with Adam.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain 12th century) identifies this “early ancestor” with Jeroboam, the infamous first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, who reintroduced the worship of the golden calf into Israelite worship. Rabbi Joseph Kara, a younger contemporary of Rashi, identifies this “ancestor” with Abraham, for even Abraham had moments of religious skepticism (see Genesis 15,8). Similarly, Rabbi Isaiah from Trani (Italy 13th century) collectively identifies him with all of the patriarchs. Rabbi Eliezer from Beaugency (France 12th century), on the other hand, identifies these ‘ancestors” with desert generation who worshipped the golden calf. Rabbi Joseph Kaspi, the 13th century French commentator and philosopher, identified these ancestors with all of the communal leaders who made alliances with Israel’s enemies instead of trusting in God. Some modern Jewish commentators (A. Erlich, Rabbi Amos Hacham) identify the “ancestor” collectively with the earlier generations, namely, how can you [the current generation] be different from earlier generations?
Whoever this early ancestor might be what is certain is Isaiah’s message. He intended for us to recognize our human imperfection and our alienation from God. We are meant to recognize that God still loves us and wants our redemption but just as He continues to works to keep the relationship alive, He expects the same from us.
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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