Haftarah Parshat Yitro
January 22, 2011
17 Shevat 5771
Isaiah is popularly known as the prophet of comfort since so much of his prophetic book indeed offers solace to a beleaguered nation. Whether this characterization is true or not on an absolute basis is a matter of question. Still, even in rabbinic times, this portrait of Isaiah seems to have been prevalent. Perhaps this explains why the message in his inaugural prophecy was so disconcerting: \”And He (God) said: Go, say to the people: \’Hear, indeed, but do not understand; see, indeed, but do not grasp.\’ Dull that people\’s mind; 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.\” (6:9-10)
Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provence) explains the import of this harsh message: \”This is judgment from God. When the sinners continued to sin, God prevented them from repenting until they received their punishment.\” Kimche goes on to compare this treatment with that meted out to Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus.
This message did not sit well with some sages, as we find in the following moralistic midrash from Eliahu Rabbah (10th century, Eretz Yisrael): One time a student asked Elijah: \”What made Isaiah different from all the other prophets [that he should be known as the prophet who comforts the people]?\” Elijah replied: \”My son, because Isaiah joyously took upon himself God\’s mission, as it says: \”And I heard the voice of God…\” (6:9) Is it possible [that in this message], God did not want Israel\’s repentance? Heaven forbid! [Consider this] parable: There was a king of flesh and blood who had a son living in his realm. He sent him a messenger to command him to eat lots of meat, drink lots of wine and be lazy in his work. Why did the king send such a message? So that the son would break with his bad habits, repent and go about his princely work so that his father would be proud of him. [Isaiah was able to deliver this message because he knew that ultimately God would bring comfort to His people.] (adapted from Eliyahu Rabbah 16 Ish Shalom ed. p. 82)
The original intent of Isaiah\’s message was to spell out the warranted punishment to the sinful. The midrash, however, reads it differently. Isaiah\’s message, according to the midrash, was meant to warn the public of the folly of its deeds and to warn them of the consequences of not mending its ways. The midrash, apparently, sees the prophet as a vehicle of repentance rather than as a harbinger of punishment. It wants to see Isaiah as he is idealized – the prophet who brings about peace, harmony and the restoration of Israel.
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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