Tuesday, January 19th, 2021

Haftarat Yitro: Yeshayahu Sees God by Gidon Rothstein

January 20, 2011 by  
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Yeshayahu 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6

The connection of the first half of this haftarah to our Torah reading seems clear, since it is Yeshayahu’s vision of God; just as the Jews’ saw God at Sinai, Yeshayahu sees God here.  It is less clear why we read the second half, since its fits less well with the Torah reading or even, at least at first glance, with the first half of the haftarah itself, since it takes up another incident at a different stage of Yeshayahu’s career.

A little thought shows that the first half, too, bears further consideration.  True, both readings speak of a revelation of God, but the Torah reading speaks of God’s appearance at Sinai, an event on a different scale and of a different sort than Yeshayahu’s.  God appearing to an entire people and giving them the laws that form one version of the core of their religion bears little relation to an individual attaining a personal vision of God in which he volunteers for a prophetic mission.  Especially since that mission consists of informing the Jews of their inadequacies, the relation to Sinai becomes tenuous.

What Does God Look Like to Yeshayahu?

I think the content of the vision offers a key to figuring out the role of the second half of the haftarah as well as the relationship of both halves to the Torah reading.  Yeshayahu sees God sitting on an exalted throne, with His “bottom parts” (whatever that means when applied to God) filling the Temple.  That already suggests a God who is exalted and removed even as His impact is strongly felt in the world, immanent while transcendent.

Yeshayahu locates his vision (it might be more accurate to say “has his vision”) in the Temple, an interesting choice since so much of his book bemoans the Jews’ excessive emphasis on ritual and sacrifice, feeding a neglect of social justice.  This vision reminds us that all his complaints about that do not mean to deny the Temple’s importance, just to point out the Jews’ failure to balance their Temple- focus with necessary other actions.

Placing the vision in the Temple also gives it a more national than personal tinge, since that is where God promised to relate to the people as a whole, not just individuals.  Yeshayahu’s seeing “שרפים, seraphim,” fiery angels, rather than ordinary ones, fits the content of the vision, since he then finds out he has volunteered to tell the Jews of the trouble they are bringing upon themselves.

The commentators disagree as to whether he is telling them that their hearts, ears, and eyes are too hardened to heed the messages that will help them avoid the coming destruction or whether he is informing them that God is going to harden their hearts, with the same result.  Both readings stress the implausibility of change, again moving the experience from the personal to the national.

This complements Sinai; in the first case, God appeared to the entire people with a message of love, command, and continuing connection, while in the later vision He called on Yeshayahu to serve as messenger to inform the people of how far they have strayed and their inability to any longer hear from God directly.

Chapter 7, Verses 1-6: A Message of Hope

So far, the haftarah gives a negative counterpart to Sinai, leaving little hope.  Chapter 7 balances that picture, opening the door to a more positive outcome than just death or destruction.  Here, Ahaz, an evil king, is told not to fear the kings who are coming to attack him, because God will protect him from them.  The two incidents, juxtaposed, show us an exquisite irony of Yeshayahu’s career.  He begins his prophecy during the time of a good king, Uziyah, and predicts doom and destruction, but is later also commissioned to tell an evil king, Ahaz, that God will save him.

In the context of Sinai, Yeshayahu’s job becomes a continuing balancing act, clarifying aspects of the original revelation that had been misunderstood by the Jews.  At the beginning of his prophecy, faced with people who were in many ways good and dedicated to God, his job was to remind them that they were nonetheless neglecting vital aspects of God’s service.  Were that to continue, he is telling them, they would bear significant consequences. 

Later on, when the people’s spiritual status has declined, perhaps to the point that they can no longer imagine God’s love, his job becomes to take the other tack.  Sinai embodied command, which implies reward and punishment, but also love, connection, and closeness. 

God can show both in one meaning-packed event, but human beings need to separate the various pieces, to experience each on its own, before they can put them back together into a unified whole.   Yeshayahu, in the haftarah, shows us one example of such a process.

Some Interesting Verses

1) Yevamot 49b identifies Yeshayahu’s referring to the Jews in Verse 5 as an “עם טמא שפתים, a nation of impure lips” as the sin that made him vulnerable to being killed.  The Talmud says that Menasheh, the son of Hezekiah (and, according to Talmudic tradition, Yeshayahu’s grandson), accused Yeshayahu of contradicting the prophecy of Moshe Rabbenu.  The Torah (which Menasheh, the heretic, referred to as written by Moshe) says that it is impossible to see God and live, while Yeshayahu starts this selection by saying he saw God.

Realizing the pointlessness of arguing, the Talmud says that Yeshayahu fled and hid in a tree; Menasseh ordered it chopped in pieces, and when the ax hit Yeshayahu’s lips—the locus of his sinful denigration of the Jews– he was killed.  Note that his lips remained vulnerable despite an angel having removed his sin by placing a hot coal on his mouth, suggesting that sin makes a mark even after the Divine kindness of teshuvah.  If you’ve read this far, you might also be interested in my noting that I tried to portray this incident in my story “Draft Report of the Shevna Commission on the Execution of Isaiah Son of Amotz,” in my Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel (and Other Untold Tales of the Prophets).

The Talmud offers an answer to Menasseh’s claim, explaining that only Moshe had to worry about seeing God and living, because only he saw through an “אספקלריא המאירה, a clear glass,” meaning with enough accuracy that any fuller a vision might be beyond his powers to bear.  For all other prophets, the issue never arose.

2) Verse 10 threatens or predicts that the Jew’s hearts will be fattened, making repentance seemingly impossible.  Yet the verse also notes that were the Jews to repent, they would be healed, teaching R. Yohanan (Rosh haShanah 17b) that, at least for a community, repentance is available even after a Divine decree of punishment.

3) Chapter 7 verse 3 refers to the place where Yeshayahu and his son should meet Ahaz as “שדה כובס,” which the Talmud interprets as meaning that Ahaz was ashamed before Yeshayahu.  That shame saved him a share in the World to Come, according to the Talmud, which suggests that even a little bit of humility before God can go a long way.  Shabbat Shalom.

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