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21 Elul 5758
The haftorah (prophetic reading) of today’s parsha (Torah portion) is a poem of Isaiah. It is a wonderful selection both because it so well echoes the sentiments of the Torah portion but also because it is such beautiful poetry. I’d like to talk about Isaiah and conclude with a reading of a portion of the haftorah.
In the years 597 to 582 BCE, fifteen thousand Jewish captives were brought from Judea to Babylonia by their conquerors. About a third of them were settled in the city of Babylon, the rest in two groups in outlying areas.
Biblical scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was written during the Babylonian exile by a number of people in addition to Isaiah. Isaiah himself was a prophet of the nation of Judah and was one of the first to leave a written record of his prophecies, or proclamations. The book of Isaiah is one of the longest in the Bible, containing sixty chapters.
The sayings of Isaiah are contained in the first 39 chapters. Most of the rest, written around 550 BCE, were poems designed to rebuild the faith of the exiles in Babylonia. Today’s haftorah is chapter 60, one of the final three chapters. It was written towards the end of the century and foretells the return of the Jewish people to their homes in Palestine.
To understand Isaiah better, imagine for a moment what it must have been like to have been forcibly taken from a city and culture that you thought was that chosen for you by your God, where you had viewed yourself as very special and blessed, to the distant capital of your conqueror. Babylon at the time was an extraordinary city, huge in size with a population of over 100,000. It was at the heart of the fertile stretch of land that formed the cradle of Western civilization. The city had a massive inner wall surrounding the city and a ten mile long outer wall protecting the immediate countryside. Eight gates opened into the city. One of them, the Ishtar gate, was magnificently decorated with blue enameled bricks into which were set red and white depictions of bulls and dragons. It opened on to an extraordinarily lovely avenue sixty three feet wide and paved with red and white stones was bordered by sixty large ceramic lions. Near Nebachadnezzur’s palace was an enormous ziggurat, a temple tower dedicated to the god Marduk.
In the midst of this overwhelming display of architectural and cultural splendor, the people of Judah wandered about the city, virtually powerless, gazing at its grandeur, and sometime staring disconsolately at the broad Euphrates River, far from their physical and spiritual home. They had been stunned by the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and were suffering from what many believed to be the abandonment by God. They struggled with strong pressures to assimilate with the culture and religion of the Babylonians in whose city they lived. They wondered, was their fate a punishment for their sins? Were the curses of today’s Torah portion meant for them? Would their punishment continue to the third and fourth generation?
In the face of these pressures, some, like the prophet Ezekiel, urged the people to turn inward, saw the separateness and exclusiveness of holiness as the only path towards a spiritual and actual return to Jerusalem. He and others focused on the importance of the cult, upon rituals, and abstention as the way to redemption.
Isaiah, on the other hand, believed that Judaism was focussing too much on technical questions of ritual purity, punishment, and details of the law and losing sight of the basic injunctions to love your neighbor as yourself, to pursue justice, and to love the stranger. In the face of great suffering, Isaiah’s poems are full of hope. They poured forth the blessing and the promises that would attend the return of the people to the promised land.
Literally read, the chapter from Isaiah contains a description of how outstanding, how highly regarded Israel will be, how the fruits of the earth and sea and of all nations will come to it, how those that offended it will bow down to it. The people will be surrounded by peace and righteousness. The Lord will be an everlasting light to them.
The promised land of which Isaiah speaks is in one sense Israel but in another metaphorical sense, it is the wonderful feelings that individuals can experience when they achieve a truly spiritual, transcendental state of mind even when faced with hardship.
With this in mind, I would like to read a portion of Isaiah to you and ask you, if you would like, to close your eyes as I read. Do not imagine I am reading about the state of the Jewish people three thousand years ago, but imagine rather that this portion of Isaiah is a personal promise that will come true for you, your family, and your people if you will be grateful and rejoice in your gifts, give to charity, seek goodness and justice, and obey the commandments of this parsha.
Isaiah, Chapter 60
Arise, shine for your light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.
For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the peoples;
But upon you the Lord will arise, and His glory shall be seen upon you.
And nations shall walk in your light, and kings at the brightness of your rising.
Your sons come afar, and your daughters are borne on the side.
Violence shall no more be heard in your land, desolation nor destruction within your borders;
But you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Paradise.
Your sun shall no more go down, neither shall your moon withdraw itself;
For the Lord shall be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended.
I the Lord will hasten it in its time.
Marc D. Schwartz, MD, President
HealthCalls America Inc.