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Rise and shine, for your light has arrived! And the glory of G-d has shone on you!' (Isaiah 60:1)
'The smallest will become a thousand and the youngest a mighty nation. I, G-d, in its time, will bring it quickly.' (ibid. 22)
Extremely powerful and poignant language illuminates the Haftara, which virtually leaps from the page. The text expresses the Messianic climax of the very lengthy Book of Isaiah. 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 is some 150 years later - relating to the end of the Babylonian exile. The text 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. The last eleven chapters of the Book - containing the text of this Haftara - relate to the final redemption and the final 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.
Themes presented in earlier prophecies find themselves again here. 'Many peoples will go and say: "Come, let us go up to the Mount of G-d, to the Temple of the G-d of Jacob, that He may teach us His ways and we may walk in His paths,"' (2:3) resurfaces in 'the children of your oppressors will come bowed to you… they will call you "City of G-d, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.'" (60:14) Similarly, 'they will do no harm or damage anywhere in My holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d…' (11:9) develops into 'nations will walk by your light, and kings by your shining brilliance.' (60:3)
The Prophet in the text turns to Jerusalem and addresses her. The holy city's great distress is coming to an end… redemption and great prosperity will take physical and spiritual shape. The 'wealth of nations shall come to you' (60:5 - aptly adopted by economist Adam Smith to head his classical formula towards world affluence), is symbolized by traders bringing the wealth of Arabia: 'gold and frankincense… the flocks of Kedar, the rams of Nebaioth' (60:6). Nebaioth is Ishmael's eldest son (Gen. 25:13); and Kedar is his second - his name re-emerges as a generic name for the Arab tribes (as Isaiah 21:16). S.G Rosenberg, in the The Haftara Cycle (2000), p. 197 toys with the possibility that the descendants of the Nebaioth were the Nabateans, who brought great prosperity to the region (though hardly to Jerusalem itself) though the spice ('frankincense') trade. That claim is made even though our earliest knowledge of that civilization dates from some two hundred years after the death of Isaiah. However, it may be argued that Jerusalem's functioning as a wealthy trade center is something for the future - 'the riches of the sea' (60:5) have not yet been turned over to her. With the exception of the Herodian period, Jerusalem has been an economic backwater from before the time of Isaiah until living memory. Even today, with a higher overall standard of living than ever before, it employs relatively few in commerce and industry: both local and foreign investors have bypassed the Holy City in favor of the Haifa and Tel Aviv.
Other prophecies in the text appear to be destined for Messianic times. True, the walls of Jerusalem have several times been rebuilt since Isaiah's day - and most recently by the Ottoman 'foreigners'. (60:10) Many of its 'smallest' (60:22) families (Ibn Ezra) have 'become a thousand' (ibid), by means of Aliyah (immigration) and natural increase. Its gates are 'always open, day and night' (60:11). But they still await 'the wealth of nations… with their kings in procession.' (ibid.) Its people, through modern communications, might 'suckle from the milk of nations' (60:16), though they could do that just about anywhere with access to electricity, computers, and airports. But 'violence no longer' being 'heard in the land,' and no 'destruction and ruin in your borders', (60:18) have been and still are amongst the greatest wishes of today's Jews of Jerusalem and beyond.
Spiritually, many people today (including the author) claim that they actually feel that the Divine presence is at its most powerful in Jerusalem. In support, the author wishes to put on record that out of some two hundred Divrei Torah to date, only two (#141 and #197) of them were composed outside Jerusalem, and they were, in his own opinion, of substantially poorer quality than the others. Others had to be temporarily abandoned - not just because of shortage of reference materials, but lack of inspiration, feeling more distant from the Guiding Hand… Many others claim similar experiences. They yearn for the spiritual fulfillment of 'You will no longer need the sun for daylight or the moon to give light by night, for G-d will always be your light… and your days of mourning will come to an end', (60:20-21) - that G-d may 'bring it quickly' (60:22) in our own times.
As stated above, the Haftara carries a powerful message describing how the world of the Chosen People will ultimately and permanently be rebuilt. But the time for the actual happening of these tidings is not clear: the Haftara finishes with two statements that appear to contradict each other. 'I, G-d, will… bring it quickly,' (60:22) implies just that. 'In its time' (ibid. ad loc.) indicates either that G-d will 'take His time' or that He has fixed the date of the Final Redemption at some specific point known only to Him in the future.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) resolves the discrepancy with the following story. It relates how R. Joshua b. Levi, a scholar of second century C.E., meets the Prophet Elijah - about one millenium after his departure in a chariot of fire. He asks Elijah when the Messiah will come, to which he replies, "Ask him." "But where is he?" says R. Joshua. "He is at the entrance," is the reply. And how shall I recognize him?". To which Elijah responds, "He is the man who is bandaging the wounds of the lepers one by one." (As Rashi ad loc. explains, the significance of this unusual way of operating is that the Messiah must be ready at any moment to respond to a call from on high.) So R. Joshua goes over and asks that man, "When is it that the Master will come?" He replies, "Today!" R. Joshua returns to Elijah and told him, "He lies: he said 'today' but he does not come." Elijah answers him that it is indeed today "if you would indeed heed His charge this day." (Psalms 95:7). For that, states the Talmud, is what Isaiah means when he says that G-d 'in its time will bring it quickly'. (60:22) If you would but heed Him then G-d will speed it; otherwise those wonderful days will come, but only in their allotted time.
In other words, G-d will never stand by and let the Israelite people fade into permanent oblivion. The Israelites will finally enter the Messianic age, but repentance and worthy conduct will hasten the redemption. Our understanding of today's situation in the Holy Land and of the Jewish people in this era may give us a deeper explanation of this principle.
To illustrate, perceive the thrust of the Haftara through two very different pairs of eyes.
Firstly, though those of Reb Schemelke, a frummer yid (observant Jew) living in a shetl (small rural community) in Eastern Europe some hundred and thirty years ago. He barely ekes his living peddling his wares around the locality. Reb Schmelke's entire life is one long struggle for mere existence. No doubt he says 'let our eyes Your return to Zion in mercy' three times a day, but deep down, transcontinental travel is beyond his wildest horizons. 'Raise your eyes and look around! They have all gathered together and come… (to Jerusalem), your sons from afar,' (60:4) would require a phenomenal leap of his imagination. And how would his experiences of unrelenting czarist-inspired persecution enable him to personally relate to, 'Instead of being abandoned and hated… I will make you glorious forever, a joy for all generations?' (60:15)
Secondly, look through the eyes of Reb Schmelke's great-great grandchild, aged forty, also a yehudi dati (observant Jew), supporting himself and his family as an accountant, living in the Holy City today. He has personally witnessed the constant immigration to Zion and Jerusalem's steady expansion, neighborhood by neighborhood. He and many of his contemporaries will relate the text of the Haftara as a description of the events slowly unfolding before his very eyes day after day. They will be deeply moved - even to tears… Those words will strike a chord within the very foundation of their lives.
Of course, the Prophet's vision of Jerusalem is far from current reality. To use his vocabulary, violence is still heard in the land, and there is much destruction and ruin within its borders. (c.f. 60:18). Though the city has some outstanding individuals, the population is yet to become 'all righteous' so that they may 'inherit the land forever'. (60:21) But a careful look at the situation suggests that we are in a unique moment in history to do something about it, as the following sketch illustrates.
A group of Americans wandering in the jungle fell into the hands of local tribesmen. They begged to be spared from the pot. Big Chief therefore put them in an iron cage to fatten them up… they would be tastier in three months time. Then another group - this time Englishmen - were overpowered and dragged into the camp. They also looked too good to eat straight away, so they were given another three months to live. Finally a group of Israeli adventures were caught and placed before the headman. Big Chief took one look at them and said, 'These Israelis! They'll go for main course tonight. If we fatten them, they'll eat each other up, and we'll get nothing.'
The Jews in the Holy Land are 'fattened up' - they enjoy a standard of living inconceivable even forty years ago. They have the financial and technological means for the first time in history to create a Utopian society on the lines of Isaiah's prophecies - should they unselfishly apply their minds to the project. They will no doubt earn worldwide respect for doing so. However the society does contain numerous elements that exploit this potential to serve their selfish and sectarian interests - at the expense of the wider society.
This concept gives us a deeper explanation of the last words of the Haftara - applied to today. G-d will bring the Final Redemption quickly if we use the tools we have today to create a practically just and fair society as envisioned by His teachings. We will have helped to start that process, and He will reciprocate by bringing it to complete fruition. But if we do not utilize the tools He has given us for the good of a modern society returned at last to the Holy Land, He will bring the Final Redemption only 'in its time'…
This D'var Torah is written in loving memory of my dearest Mother, Harabanit Devora Solomon ztl. who ascended to the Yeshiva Shel Ma'ala on Shabbat Ki Tavo ten years ago. May her memory be blessed, and be a source of blessings.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org 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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