(Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6)
February 10, 2007
After his vision of the celestial throne room, with its chorus of seraphim singing praise of God (Verses 1-4), Isaiah is overcome by dread at his own impurity and unworthiness to serve as a prophet (Verse 5). God intends for him to proclaim a message of doom to a sinful nation and Isaiah is not anxious to take up this task. God sends forth a seraph (a fiery angel) to prepare him for his new responsibilities: \”Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs (b\’melkahaim). He touched it to my lips and declared: \’Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin be purged away.\” (6:6-7)
Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) relates an interesting question in the name of his father: \”Why was it necessary for the seraph (the fiery angel) to use tongs (melkahaim) to seize the live coal? His answer is no less interesting. He asserts that the seraph used tongs in order to protect Isaiah, \”lest the prophet be burnt if the seraph touch him on the mouth with his hand.\” Rabbi Eliezer from Beaugency (12th century N. France) also took up this question. Unlike Kimche, he maintains that the seraph had to use tongs to show that Isaiah was better suited for his mission than the seraph was, for since he was clean and pure before God, he was not burnt by the coal.\”
Rabbi Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, the Sefat Emet (19-20th century Poland), seems to have taken up this later mode of thinking. Before we get to his insights, we need to be aware that the word \”melkahaim\” is derived from the word \”lakah – take\” and that the word \”lekah\” can also mean \”teaching\”. The Sefat Emet plays with this idea throughout his teaching: \”Tongs (melkahaim) are meant for picking up hot things. God\’s words are described as fire: \’Behold My word is like fire\’ (Jeremiah 23:29) It is normally beyond the reach of human beings. But through the revealed Torah, which clothes the words of God, we have access to God\’s words in the form of Torah and the commandments (mitzvot). In the book of Isaiah, it talks about the angel who took the live coal with tongs and put it into the mouth of the prophet. (See above.) The sages have written regarding this (see Tanchuma Vayeshev 2) that prophets are greater than angels, since angels need tongs to handle fire while the mouth of the prophet is not harmed by God\’s fiery words. So we see that angels can not touch God\’s fire, but human beings, through the strength of Torah which is call a \”lekah tov – goodly teaching\”, have access to God\’s words.\” (Adapted from Sefat Emet Terumah 5635 Or Etzion ed. p. 250)
Human beings are not just the equals of angels but are, in fact, even greater than angels. Through Torah, we have access not just to God and His words; we also have the God given ability to build God\’s world. This is something that cannot be trusted to \”mere\” angels.
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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