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Sing out, O barren one, who has not given birth!
Break out into happy song, and be jubilant!
For southward and northwards you shall spread out mightily.
Your children shall drive out nations,
And settle desolate cities. (Isaiah 54:1,3)
For like the waters of Noah…
As I have sworn never again never again to pass the water of Noah over the Earth,
So have I sworn neither to be wrathful with you, nor to reject you.
For the mountains may be moved.
And the hills may waver.
But my kindness shall not depart from you and my covenant of peace shall not falter,
Says G-d, the One Who shows you mercy. (ibid, 9-10)
By way of introduction…
Rashi and many other commentators regard the 'barren one' as referring to the city of Jerusalem. This week's Haftara carries a powerful message describing how the world of Israel will ultimately be rebuilt: securely and safely in Jerusalem.
Like the previous week, the Haftara is taken from later chapters of the 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 Book of Isaiah also contains deeply inspiring words of encouragement, applying to both the Israelites and the world at large. It repeatedly stresses, as most notably 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. Many of the prophecies - including the ones in this Haftara - have been understood by commentators to refer to events that even today are in the future. The cycle of sin and punishment will be broken and the Israelites will realize the promise of, 'all your children will be students of G-d and abundant will be your children's peace' (Isaiah 54:13). So the Book of Isaiah is speaking as directly to us as to those in his own day.
As stated above, the Haftara carries a powerful message describing how the world of Israel will ultimately be rebuilt: securely and safely in Jerusalem.
The previous familiar cycle - so well known from the Book of Judges onwards - will be broken. That vicious circle is: the Israelites sin / they suffer defeat and afflictions from their enemies or from other source / their agonies make them turn to G-d in prayer and in repentance / G-d sends them better times / and later on they return to their bad old ways and the cycle repeats itself. The prophecy in this chapter implies that this cycle will cease and give way to everlasting stability.
The spiritual product of this change, says the Prophet, is the learning of Torah: 'All your children will be students of G-d, and abundant will be your children's peace.'
What is special about the learning of Torah? Surely the Torah has been learnt throughout the ages? What is new about the Torah studied in this period? And what is the link between learning Torah and peace? Sadly, history shows many unpleasant controversies and communal divisions made in the name of the Torah - in some cases, by less than wholesome personalities.
The clue to understanding these issues may be found in the opening words of the above verse, 'All your children will be students of G-d'.
A person can learn Torah and promote Torah, without being a student of G-d. The classic expression of this would be studying Talmud Shabbat - on the day of Shabbat - and at the same time, lighting up a cigarette. He learns Torah to give him a link with his past and/or as an intellectual exercise. More subtly, a Yeshiva student may deliver a brilliant pilpul (Talmudic discourse questioning and reconciling far flung casuistic sources) in the hope that it will earn him a few extra brownie points on the shidduch market. And in Diaspora, a parent may send his child to Hebrew Classes on Sunday classes primarily to get him out of the way to do some informal business over a round of golf.
These Jews are all students - yes! But do their studies bring them nearer to G-d?
Our daily prayers outline true Torah study. We pray to G-d before the Shema, to give us the desire not only to learn Torah, but to understand it in the right spirit and apply it to the very center of our lives: to live by it. We do not ask Him to help us concoct a series of public mental gymnastics to dazzle the public.
An incident that took place a day before writing this item illustrated that point:
The glass cover to the face of my watch broke as it fell on the floor. I took it in to an elderly Ben-Torah Jerusalem watch repairer, with a small shop in the center of the city. He told me that the repair would cost thirty shekels, a sum I happily agreed to pay. It turned out that the watch was of a non- standard design and it took a long time for a glass face to be suitably adapted. In the process, a tiny fragment of glass got into the mechanism and it took much skill and time to extract it - to the last particle. The battery seemed a little weak - so it had to be tested, and it turned out to be just fine. Then he then noticed that the watch may have lost its waterproof characteristics in his fashioning the new cover, so he took another ten minutes painstakingly gluing the face to bring the watch up to standard for swimming. Thanking him, I offered to pay him more money - after all I had taken a great deal of his time and skills. He refused, saying that thirty shekels was the sum agreed on, and he would not take a penny more. As I left the shop, I felt that I had indeed been privileged to meet a 'student of G-d'.
That perhaps gives us a glimpse of the Jerusalem of the future… when learning Torah will produce many personalities of such a caliber that whatever field they chose to go in, they will be 'the students of G-d'.
That can apply even today, and it is an ideal to work towards. However, commentators suggest that G-d will aid that process in the Messianic age by coming closer to us as well… through communicating His word more directly through prophets, who by then will be addressing a public who will be ready to listen to them.
I heard someone remarking he would rather be a Navi than a Rav. As a Rav, he has to agonize whether he is giving the right decision - especially in personal matters involving family status. As a Navi, he gets his instructions from his hot line with G-d, so whatever the public say he at least knows he is saying the right thing…
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.
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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