February 2, 2002
The revelation at Sinai represents a singular moment in the religious experience of the Jewish people. Not only did they directly experience the presence of God, they also received the Torah. Sinai marked the initiation of the community of Israel into their covenant with God. Their response to this covenant was resounding. God offered them the covenant and they answered : “na’aseh v’nishma” which the rabbinic tradition interpreted to mean: “we shall do and then we shall understand”. The haftarah records the initiation of Isaiah as a prophet. When Isaiah confronts the image of the divine throne room with angels singing the praise of God, his response is one of spiritual inadequacy: “Woe is me; I am lost. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my own eyes have beheld the King Lord of Hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5) God’s response was to send an angel to purify Isaiah in preparation for his mission: “Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal (ritzpah), which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched it to my lips and declared, ‘Now that this has touched your lips your guilt shall depart and your sin shall be purged’” (verses 6-7)
Isaiah’s moment of prophetic initiation evinced a reaction from him that was no different than that of many other prophets who also felt that the task of prophecy was beyond them. Rashi explains that this perceived inadequacy was the result of seeing a vision that human beings are incapable of surviving. Abraham Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Spanish exegete who emphasizes the “pshat” or plain meaning, notes that Isaiah’s inadequacy was the result of the sinful environment in which he lived.
There were sages in the rabbinic period who were not pleased by the way Isaiah expressed his inadequacy. The following midrash reveals this displeasure: When Isaiah said: “and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5), the Holy One Blessed be He said to Isaiah: “About yourself you are permitted to confess – ‘for I am a man of unclean lips’ (Ibid.) but how dare you condemn My people with the words ‘I live among a people with unclean lips’? They accepted the Torah by promising to observe even before understanding (na’aseh v’nishmah), they recite the “shema” twice each day, and you say they have unclean lips?” Come see what is written about Isaiah further on: ‘Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal (ritzpah).’ (Ibid., v. 6) What is the meaning of “ritzpah”? It is a word that through a word play contains two words: “rotz” and “peh” which was meant to be understood as “r’tzotz peh” – destroyed his mouth”- “I [God] punish those who slander my children” (adapted from Tanchuma Vayishlach 2)
Isaiah’s initiation as a prophet, according to this midrash, was more than a divine ritual to inspire adequacy in the prophetic initiate. It was also a profound lesson in leadership. Until Isaiah was able to acknowledge the strengths of his people rather than their weaknesses, the rabbis felt that he would be inadequate to his role as a prophet. This midrash asserts that the commitment of the people to God and the Torah made them special despite any inadequacies that they might have. Any one who aspires to Jewish leadership must build on these virtues rather then on any perceived flaws if they truly desire to lead the community.