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'Lift up your eyes to the heavens and see who created them! Who brings out their hosts by number, calling each one by name? Not one fails to appear, because of His great might and tremendous strength!' (Isaiah 40:26)
The Israelite exiles are assured in powerful and heartrending language that G-d has not forsaken them. 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.
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 the Haftara opens is some 200 years later - relating to the end of the Babylonian exile. 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.
The text of the Haftara assures the exiles that G-d indeed has not forgotten the Israelites. The exiles will be very painful and bitter: the Israelites will have paid 'doubly for their sins' (40:2). As a 'kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Ex. 19:6), higher standards of conduct are expected from them than from other peoples, making their deviance from the Torah path all the more serious (Ibn Ezra; c.f. Amos 3:2).
When the time comes, G-d Himself will see to it that His People return to the Land. Even when all seems hopeless, nothing is impossible for Him, as He operates on a scale totally beyond the comprehension of Mankind. 'Who measured the waters with the hollow of His hand and sized the heavens with His little finger… weighed the mountains with a scale and the hills with a balance? Who instructed Him in the right way, taught Him knowledge, or guided Him in the path of wisdom?' (40:11-12). Just as Man cannot grasp the infinite, he has to accept that there are forces behind him which he cannot fathom by dint of being merely human. In that context, the pagan concept of exclusively applying one's own intelligence to confine the deity to an earthly form using the most expensive materials available is not merely idolatry; but it grossly overestimates Man's intelligence and locus of control (c.f. 40:18-24).
Compared to eternity, Man is ephemeral and insignificant: 'all flesh is grass… which withers and fades… when G-d's breath blows over it… Indeed, Man is like grass… but the Word of G-d will endure for ever'. (40:6-8)
This stresses the greatness of the Israelite Nation's connection with the Infinite Creator. Israel's oppressors (Rashi, Radak) are temporary as grass, but with backing of the Almighty, to whose direction even the stars conform (40:26), Israel will be able to proclaim confidently without let or hindrance that the Divine Presence has returned to the Land and the Holy City of Jerusalem (40:9).
As stated above, Isaiah brings the humbling similarity between Man, the most intelligent species on Earth, and lowly grass: 'all flesh is grass… which withers and fades… when G-d's breath blows over it… Indeed, Man is like grass…' (40:6-8). But then G-d Himself brings the seemingly rhetorical questions; 'To what may I be compared? (40:25) And in reply, he invites humanity to look at the stars, His Products: 'Lift up your eyes to the heavens and see who created them! Who brings out their hosts by number, calling each one by name? Not one fails to appear, because of His great might and tremendous strength!' (40: 26)
Of all the things He created, why did G-d ask Man to look at the stars specifically, in order to come to appreciate Him? What special qualities do they have? After all they are remote, practically intangible, and of limited interest to people other than astronomers, astrologers, or navigators.
One approach may be found in the narrative of the early life of Abraham, after his war against four major powers of his time, and his rescue of his nephew, Lot. Distressed in his childlessness, G-d reassures him that he will indeed have a family, with reference to the stars:
'He took him outside, and said: 'Look up to the heavens and count the stars if you can… that will be the number of your descendants'. (Gen. 15:5)
The Midrash (Pesikta Zutreisa) explains that comparison with the stars in the following way. G-d took Abraham outside the realm of reason and nature - above the Earth, symbolized by the stars. Abraham knew that he and Sarah could not have children together, but G-d was now telling him that the Israelites transcend the laws of nature, which are symbolized by the stars and constellations. Thus even though he and Sarah were naturally unable to have children together, they were superior to the main order of things (symbolized by the stars) and would have children if that was G-d's Will. And just as no-one can conquer the stars, so no nation will ever succeed in exterminating Israel.
These ideas may be applied to the text of the Haftara. To whom, asks G-d, may I be compared? He does not give an answer. But He does suggest that by looking up at the stars, His People may see themselves of more importance than here today and gone tomorrow, like mere grass that fades away without trace. For the act of looking at the stars symbolizes the eternity of Israel. Israel is not part of the mere general flow of humanity, governed by the predictable rules of history and nature. An Israelite nation that follows His Will - by accepting and relating to His Infinite Being - is indeed above those rules, as the stars are above the Earth. Against all physical and political odds, they will return to the Land if G-d so wills. And just as no-one can conquer the stars, so no nation will ever succeed in completely obliterating Israel.
Moreover, at the individual level, stars are numerous, but they all have names (c.f. Psalms 147:4), and individuality. That means that they symbolize that each person has his unique individuality that has paramount importance in the Creation if it follows the Will of G-d, as the stars do. For in giving each one a 'name' (40:26), its individuality is recognized, and this illustrates the importance of each person within the Creation.
That is what G-d teaches us in Isaiah. To accept the infinity of G-d enables us to accept our own role in the Creation. As 'infinity' we do not know 'to what G-d is to be compared' - and by extension, where we fit in to the vast eternal plan. But we know that we belong - in a big way! For in being urged to consider the stars is to bring home to us the importance of our individuality within the structure G-d created for us at one level, and as our eternity as a people on the next.
As Mark Twain put it: 'All things are mortal, but the Jew; all other forces passes, but he remains'.
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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