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'G-d has comforted Zion, comforted all her ruins. He has made her wilderness like Eden and her desert like G-d's garden. Joy and happiness with thanksgiving and song' will flourish there.' (Isaiah 51:3)
The laid-waste city of Jerusalem is comforted in powerful and heartrending language that G-d has not forsaken it for ever. Although the immediate context of the Haftara is the return of the Babylonian exile long after Isaiah's death, it may also be understood to convey the future Messianic climax which becomes the theme of the final chapters of this very lengthy book. Indeed, parts of the Haftara would appear to be thinly disguised accounts of events witnessed by many of today's Jerusalem residents, 2,700 years on.
Isaiah was a navi: an individual who personally received the word of G-d, and conveyed it to the people. Isaiah himself lived at around 720 BCE. That was when both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were going through spiritual and moral decline. In consequence, his earlier prophesies - messages directly from G-d - foresaw the exiles of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel (which took place in his lifetime), and ultimately the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
The scene of the middle section of Isaiah with which contains the Haftara is some 200 years later - relating to primarily to the end of the Babylonian exile, although it could be also be hinting towards redemption in a much later era. This part of the book mentions Cyrus II, Emperor of the Medes and the Persians, by name. G-d declares him to be His shepherd and His anointed (44:28 and 45:1). Following his declaration, some of the Jews returned, physically and spiritually, to rebuild a much-devastated Holy Land. And the last eleven chapters of the Book - containing the text of this Haftara - relate to the final redemption and the end of the Diaspora: when 'all Israel will emerge out of its nations of dispersion and reassemble on G-d's sacred mountain of Jerusalem.' (66:20)
The Book of Isaiah contains deeply inspiring words of encouragement, applying to both the Israelites and the world at large. It repeatedly stresses, as seen in this Haftara, that the Israelite exiles and Divine punishments suffered will be temporary, and that G-d will eventually redeem His people and settle them permanently in His land, in honor, prosperity, and with worldwide influence.
Following the Da'at Mikra (Isaiah, 532) the text of this relatively long Haftara may be divided into the seven sections, each with a different theme:
1. Zion says she is forgotten, but G-d would no more spurn her permanently than a mother would forget her own baby (49:14-16).
2. Zion is barren for the moment, but her own children will emerge, return, and fill the city even beyond normal capacity (49:17-21).
3. Kings and nations will assist the homecoming of the Israelite exiles to Zion (49:22-23) - as did Cyrus II (see above)
4. G-d will fight Israel's enemies and save Israel (49:24-26).
5. G-d wants to redeem Israel. He will not let the exile go on forever (50:1-3).
6. The prophet - G-d's messenger, will understand G-d's purpose, and will not be daunted by vicious opposition from the masses (50:4-11).
7. The ethically and spiritually worthy are urged to link themselves with their noble roots of the Patriarchs, and see themselves as their successors in Zion (51:1-3).
Thus the text of the Haftara emphasizes that those who return to Zion will indeed be Zion's 'Children' (49:17) - quality people who fit in within the spiritual realities of the Holy City.
The Haftara concludes on the note that 'G-d has comforted Zion, comforted all her ruins. He has made her wilderness like Eden and her desert like G-d's garden. Joy and happiness with thanksgiving and song' will flourish there.' (51:3).
Zechariah makes a similar, though more specific prophecy with reference to the still-current Fast Days:
The Word of the L-rd of Hosts came to me… the fast of the fourth month (Fast of Tamuz), the fast of the fifth month (Fast of Av), the fast of the seventh month (Fast of Gedaliah), and the fast of the tenth month (Fast of Teveth) will be … festive periods for the House of Judah. You shall love truth and peace. (Zech. 8:18-19).
Both passages imply that the comfort will be complete - like the Garden of Eden, with the agonies of past memories wiped out. What future redemption can be of such a magnitude as to comfort to Zion to the degree that the horrifying memories (of the magnitude of the Holocaust) suffered by its inhabitants may not be merely dimmed, but obliterated? And what have the words 'You shall love truth and peace' (Zach. 8:19) got to do with the comforting of Zion?
A suggestion may be made by applying the deeper message of one of the responsa of R. Moshe Feinstein ztl.
A survivor of Auschwitz stated that he did not wish to be buried in the standard white shrouds, but in his concentration camp uniform. He justified his wishing to depart from the tradition in the following way. He wanted G-d to see him in his uniform testifying that he had already been through Gehinnom (Hell) for his sins in This World, and that there was no reason to send him there again, in the Next World. R. Moshe Feinstein ruled in the man's favor and allowed his request.
Implied in this ruling is the concept of G-d transferring His Punishment to This World, instead of keeping it waiting in the Next World. Man is limited in his vision - however strong his beliefs, he can only see life in human form, and he cannot see the soul in its post-human, eternal form.
There have however been various 'glimpses of the beyond' - many of which have been recorded through the research of Dr. Raymond Moody, in 'Life after Life' and later works. He brings many anecdotes related to him by people who 'died' and 'were brought back to life' - for example by means of electrical treatments following what not long ago would have been a fatal heart attack. They had returned from a much greater departure from human existence than would have been possible in earlier generations, including remembering their mere glimpse of the 'beyond', which deeply affected their entire outlook for the rest of their lives. He relates one common point made by those who 'returned' from the 'beyond'. They should spend the rest of their lives learning, and making the lives of other more pleasant. In the words of Zechariah, they should love 'truth' - real truth being the product of learning and seeking, and 'peace' - the harmony in human relations that comes out of concern and caring for the needs of others.
When the Messiah comes, he will tell us the meaning of the intense suffering over the generations borne by the City of Zion and its far-flung inhabitants. The afflictions associated with the various events commemorated by the fasts listed by Zechariah all the way through the Holocaust and down to the present day will have new meanings. Very likely, the eternal souls of those and their families who suffered them are singing praises to G-d for sparing them from the far more arduous spiritual cleansing process in the Next World - in keeping with the foresight of the survivor who wanted to be spared from Gehinnom.
Thus in Messianic times, G-d will truly have comforted Zion. Its blood-spattered past will be understood in a new positive light, as part of a vast eternal picture. Its brilliance will show the infertile 'desert' and 'plain' as part of a beautiful unfolding picture, the whole sum of it being 'as Eden' and as 'G-d's Garden'. 'Joy and happiness with thanksgiving and song' will flourish there. The events giving rise to the fasts and later calamities, will all take on new meaning - being part of a much larger and more beautiful tapestry. And Judah - indeed humanity - will go from strength to strength by making life's priorities ones of learning and care for others - 'You shall love truth and peace.'
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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