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Then I (Isaiah) heard G-d's Voice asking: "Whom shall I send and who will go for us?"
I answered: "Here am I - send me!"
G-d said: "Go and tell this people, "listen well, but you will not understand…"
I said, "Until when, O G-d?"
He answered: "Until their cities are desolate of inhabitants, their houses empty of occupants, and the land desolate and deserted! … G-d will exile the people… when only a tenth remains the land will continue to be destroyed... but like … an oak whose stump remains after it has been cut down: its stump will be holy seed." (Isaiah 6:8-13)
This Haftara is taken from near the beginning 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 725 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 that the Israelite exiles and Divine punishments suffered will be temporary, and that later on G-d will eventually redeem His people and settle them permanently in His land. Not only will they live under His constant care and guidance, but they will also raise the moral and ethical levels of the other nations.
The Haftara is in three parts. The first section describes the background and substances of what most commentaries regard as G-d's first communication to Isaiah. G-d calls to him in an extremely powerful, awe-inspiring, and vivid setting. The angels are living and active: calling to each other: "Holy, holy, holy". The repetition of this word underscores G-d's absolute transcendence: G-d's holiness is beyond all imagination (Malbim). One of the seraphim angels cleanses Isaiah's lips with a burning coal from the altar, and then G-d invites him to 'alter his career plans': namely to be His messenger to the errant people of Israel and Judea. G-d phrased it in such a way that Isaiah could easily have refused, and spent the rest of his life in the relatively secure, if unchallenging setting of the general community. He nevertheless saw his call as an opportunity, and he took it. But his first assignment was not a pleasant one. He was told that it would virtually be a failure! He was to urge them to repent, but G-d told him advance that they would not take heed. The current order of society would then entirely disappear, with only a little of the pure essence - the 'stump and the seed' - to pave the way for a better future.
The second section leaves the celestial world of angels and Divine revelations, in the direction of the threat of war. For in the previous century, the whole region was under the shadow and threat of invasion of the then Great Power, the Assyrian Empire. The Black Obelisk (found about 150 years ago, now in the Louvre, Paris) cites the Northern Kingdom under Ahab (c. 850 BCE) allying with Aram (Syria) and its neighboring small countries. They formed a united military front and through it successfully prevented the Assyrians under Shalmenezzer III from taking over the entire region. Now, the Bible relates, the Assyrians were strong enough to make another attempt: this time under Tiglath-Pilesser III - which in the case of the Northern Kingdom was ultimately successful (721 BCE). Once more, the Northern Kingdom allied itself to Aram - but the Southern Kingdom declined to join in - preferring to appease Assyria and pay that nation not to attack. That did not come cheap: the text relates that Ahaz, King of the Southern Kingdom at the paid with 'the gold and silver that were on hand in the House of the Lord' (Kings II 16:8). The Northern Kingdom, feeling let down by Ahaz, threatened him with war. Isaiah counseled Ahaz in the name of G-d to remain calm - to ignore 'those two smoking tails of firebrands' (Isaiah 7:4) - the kings of Israel and Aram, and instead advised him to use the (purchased) goodwill of Assyria to prevent invasion by his neighbors. [Indeed, the Assyrian annals record that Tiglath-Pilesser III did come to Syria-Israel in 734 BCE, defeating the anti-Ahaz coalition (Miller J.M. and Hayes J.H. 1986: A History of Ancient Israel and Judah p. 344)]
The third section - two chapters later - looks further into the future, towards the end of Isaiah's life, when 'a child will be born (in Judea) and authority will rest on his shoulders' (Isaiah 9:5). The 'child' is understood by commentators to refer to King Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz. Not only did he banish idol and non-approved modes of worship from Judea, but in addition, the Talmud brings the tradition that he became near to being the Messiah, only failing because he did not compose any songs of praise on the scale of the Psalms of David (Sanhedrin 94a).
The Call of G-d to Isaiah is unusual. When G-d appeared to Moses at the Burning Bush, He assured him that, hopeless as it might seem, he would succeed in bringing the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage into His service (Ex. 3:12). But G-d did not make any such promise to Isaiah. In telling him that the people would not heed him, and that the old order of things would collapse, He as good as said that his mission would be a failure.
So why did G-d call to Isaiah with what appeared to be a hopeless task? And why did Isaiah accept it? And what can people today learn from G-d's having offered, and Isaiah's having accepted, a task doomed to at least initial failure? As the Talmud (Megilla 14a) states, there were many prophets in Israel, but the only ones recorded were those whose prophecies were of importance for future generations as well.
In response, the following might be suggested. Isaiah's Call from G-d through a very special background was significant. Isaiah was already experiencing the celestial angels in their brilliance, and he was seeing that the Creation was a much larger and more brilliant entity than the Earth, his surroundings and society that he knew. At that moment he experienced more of the powers of G-d than he ever had before, or, for that matter, than what people know today. It was in that setting that G-d called to him and invited him to take part in His plans. The angels did His bidding - without assessing success or failure. Would he, Isaiah, momentarily put himself on the same plane and carry out His bidding, even if told he would fail?
Isaiah was invited, not ordered. G-d did not say He would desert him if he declined the offer.
Had he refused, he would have been like the following character:
At twenty years of age, he was an accomplished, ordinary 'anybody'. That is to say that he just did his thing the way he had been told to do it. He lived a sheltered life with his parents, listened to their advice and guidance. He feared taking any chances. To him, taking as risk was too dangerous, and so he still had the first job he took years ago. He was low on the totem pole in his company because he had no initiative. He always felt more secure in what he had been told to do, and nothing more.
He was a fine looking male, yet he feared dating girls. What if they would turn him down on the second date? He could not live with any sort of rejection, and so he seldom, if ever dated. When his mother fixed him up with a date, he went out with the girl, but acted like some robot, remembering the advice his mother had given him on how to treat a girl on the first date. This he did as though he had a manual in from of him.
From his hat right down to his black shoes he was conservative. He feared making changes, feared making him risks that might involve emotional danger. Before undertaking something new, he inventoried every possible risk of failure. "What is wrong with me?" he asked his counselor. 'My friends are all married, have advanced themselves in their professional lives. Yet here |I am in my dead-end job. I am no different at 27 than I was at 17…" (related in Mandel M. Man or Robot - Which are you? (1988 pp. 47-8)
Isaiah, in contrast, understood that if G-d revealed himself in such a way, he was granting him an opportunity. Even if it would be a failure it would still be an opportunity. And failure would be the bedrock foundation for success - as illustrated by the following story about a close relative of a friend - let's call him David.
David, an observant Jew, was learning-disabled. In spite of that, he graduated high school and then decided to go into catering. He tried, but found it not to his liking. So he quit. He then went into long distance telephone sales, persisted at it, but then decided to leave that as well. Despite his more advanced age, he enrolled in college to be an ultra-sound technician. At the end of the training - despite his learning disabilities - David was one of the few to qualify with honors. He found plenty of useful and productive work that field that gave him the satisfaction and fulfillment of using and stretching his potential for the good. And the important point is that he needed the first two 'failures' to give him the stamina, drive, and motivation to go through the extended and highly demanding program in the ultra-sound technology.
Isaiah did not succeed - the people of the Northern Kingdom ignored his pleas for repentance and were taken into exile in 721 BCE. The people of Judea almost suffered the same fate under Sennacharib of Assyria - but Jerusalem, under the positive influence of Hezekiah and guidance of G-d though Isaiah survived by a series of tactics and miracles.
Isaiah may appear to have failed - initially. But he used his failure as a bedrock on which to build success - which in his own later lifetime indeed gave the Jews a new start.
This is the message we can learn. With sensible discretion, but faith, opportunities are there to be taken. We may fail. But we can at least use those failures as chips on which to take further opportunities to build success. We cannot if we decline.
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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