February 18, 2006
After Isaiah received his commission as a prophet, God immediately charged him with a painfully difficult message to deliver to his people: \”Go and say to the people: \’Hear, indeed, but do not understand; see, indeed, but do not grasp.\’ Dull that people\’s heart; stop its ears, and seal its eyes – lest seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears, it also grasp with its mind and repent and save itself.\” (Isaiah 6:9-10)
Rabbi Amos Hacham (20th century Israel) asserts that this message seems to reflect God\’s exasperation with His people. God has challenged the people to respond to His message, but nothing helps. So, now, God derisively sends Isaiah to taunt them and command them to do as they please and bear the consequences. (Isaiah, Daat Mikra, pp. 69; 73) Targum Yonathan (~7th century Eretz Yisrael) interprets Isaiah\’s words not as commands but rather as descriptive of the behavior of the wicked: \”They have surely heard, but do not look; they have surely seen, but do not understand.\”
Maimonides seems to understand Isaiah\’s words as an acknowledgement by God that He indeed hardens the hearts of the wicked as a punishment for their sins: \”And is it possible that a person sin a great sin or a great many sins and not be judged before the True Judge, that the sinner should not pay for the sins that he did of his own volition? – He should be prevented from the possibility of repentance in order that he may die and be lost in the sins that he performed. This is what God meant when Isaiah said: \’Dull that people\’s heart, stop its ears…\’\” (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 6:3; Also note Ramban on Exodus 7:11)
Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel (14-15th century Spain) took issue with Maimonides and explained the verse in a rhetorical fashion: \”Is it possible that you could hear time after time and see time after time and not understand? It would be as if God created the senses of hearing and sight for naught… This can only be explained by the fact that there heart is dulled and their ears stopped and their eyes sealed so that these senses leave them unaware.\” He continues with his critique of Maimonides: \”By this way of thinking, God would prevent the way of repentance from man… Rather, one possibility is that God might ask a prophet to present the situation rhetorically so that the people might turn their ways in the opposite direction and correct them. This explanation also must be rejected even though it fits the language because it is inconceivable that God would demand of people to do the opposite of what He says even to correct their ways. (Abridged translation) While Abrabanel\’s ultimate explanation remains difficult even for him, still he cannot conceive that God would leave human beings without the chance for repentance.
These explanations run the gamut of different ways of attempting to convince people to alter their behavior patterns. One feels how the commentators empathize with God\’s exasperation, as a loving parent and educator trying in every possible manor to direct His wayward pupil in the right direction. The angst is palpable. Perhaps we, His children, should finally try to relieve it.
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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