Avraham ben Yaakov
ISAIAH CHAPTER 6
"In the year of the DEATH of King Uzziah." (v 1) As discussed in the Introduction to the book of Isaiah (KNOW YOUR BIBLE Isaiah 1-2) and also in the commentary on II Chronicles ch 26 dealing with the reign of Uzziah, Targum and all the commentators agree that Uzziah's "death" refers to his being struck with leprosy in punishment for trying to usurp the role of the priests by burning incense in the Temple Sanctuary (II Chron 26:16-21). It was in that year that Isaiah's prophetic ministry began despite the fact that the chapter in which it is described does not stand at the beginning of his book. Yet it is clear that our present chapter marks the beginning of his ministry, because it says: "Who shall I send and who will go for us? And I said, here I am, send me" (v 8).
".and I saw the Lord (A-D-N-Y) sitting upon a lofty and exalted throne." The use of the holy name of Lordship (ADNUS) indicates that Isaiah's vision was of the Shechinah (Divine Presence) "seated" upon the "Throne of Glory". The "train" (i.e. the lower levels garbing and hiding the upper levels) extended down to and "filled the Sanctuary". RaDaK (on v 1) explains that "the Sanctuary" (HEICHAL) may mean the Temple but can also refer to the heavens (cf. Psalms 11:4).
"Serafim stood above Him" (v 2) - "Serafim were ministering on high before Him" (Targum). "These are the holy angels that exist forever" (RaDaK ad loc.). The "wings" of the Serafim refer to the causal nexus through which these angels accomplish their missions: "wings are the cause of the fastest of all kinds of movements" (RaDaK). While Ezekiel, prophesying after the destruction of the Temple , saw the Chayos with only four wings, Isaiah, prophesying while the Temple was standing, saw the Seraphim with six wings (Hagigah 13b). Rashi (on our verse) explains that each Saraph hid his "face" with two wings so as not to gaze in the direction of the Shechinah, hiding his legs with two wings out of modesty, so that his whole body should not be visible before his Creator. The "flying" that was the function of the third set of wings refers to the actual service that each Saraph performed. The Hebrew word for "wing" is KANAF, which has the connotation of covering, hiding and concealing (cf. Is. 30:20). I.e. the prophet perceived an outer garb that both revealed yet at the same time concealed the inner essence. "And this whole vision was a prophetic vision through the apprehension of the intellect and not through any apprehension outside of the intellect [i.e. not through sensory perception] for these angels that he called Seraphim have neither faces nor legs nor wings. He called them Seraphim because he saw them in his prophetic vision in the likeness of burning fire, and this was in order to reveal the sin of the generation - for they were liable to complete destruction" (RaDaK ibid.).
"And one cried to another and said." (v 2) - "They ask permission from one another so that not a single one should begin [the heavenly chant] before all the others, thereby making himself liable to be burned, but rather, they all begin together, as it says in the blessing of YOTZER OR, 'all of them answer the Sanctification TOGETHER'" (Rashi ad loc.). All the angels are in complete unison in their praise of God, for all creation is a unity.
The formula with which the heavenly angels praise God as revealed here in Isaiah was adopted as the formula with which Israel daily sanctify Him at the height of the communal repetition of the Amidah prayer in the KEDUSHAH ("Sanctification") at every morning, afternoon and Musaf service in fulfillment of the commandment in Leviticus 22:32, "And I shall be sanctified amongst the Children of Israel".
"Holy, holy, holy is HaShem of hosts." "Holy" (KADOSH) means "separate". HaShem completely transcends His entire universe. "It mentions 'Holy' three times corresponding to the three worlds:  The supernal world of the angels and souls;  The intermediate world of the heavenly spheres, stars and planets;  The lower world - i.e. This World, the most glorious member of which is man. The prophet says that He is holy, exalted and elevated above all three worlds. Yonasan's Targum, which says 'Holy in the supreme heavens, the house of His indwelling presence, holy upon earth, the work of His might, holy for ever and ever' includes all the upper worlds as one, thereafter mentions the earth, this lowly world, and finally says that just as this is true now, so it will be for ever" (RaDaK ad loc.).
".the whole earth is full of His glory" - "for He created everything" (RaDaK).
"Then I said, Woe is me for I am ruined." (v 5). Likewise Mano'ah, father of Samson, was convinced that he and his wife would die after seeing the angel (Judges 13:22).
"Then one of the Serafim flew to me with a live coal (RITZPAH) in his hand." (v 6). Touching the prophet's mouth with the coal was to cleanse him of having uttered an evil report against Israel in saying "I am in the midst of a people of impure lips" (v 5). Thus RITZ-PAH has the connotation of "smash" (=RITZ) "the mouth" (=PEH). Likewise Elijah ate a "cake of coals" (RETZAPHIM, I Kings 19:6) on account of having reported that Israel had broken the Covenant (Rashi on v 6).
It was the living coal FROM THE ALTAR that cleansed the prophet's mouth in preparation for receiving the word of Hashem. Likewise, when we sanctify the way we eat at our table (=the Altar) we are able to speak words of purity and wisdom.
"And He said, Go and say to this people, Hear indeed but understand not! And see indeed but perceive not! Make the heart of this people fat and make their ears heavy and smear over their eyes." (vv 9-10). God was warning the prophet that his rebukes and admonitions were liable to have the effect of making the people even more stubborn. For when the sinner wants to sin, God withholds from him the ways of repentance until he receives his punishment, as in the case of Pharaoh (Ex. 9:12) and Sichon king of the Emorites (Deut. 2:30; see RaDaK on v 9 of our present chapter).
".lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and return and be healed" (v 10): This verse expresses the three conditions of Teshuvah (Repentance). It is not sufficient to "see with one's eyes" - to attain a perception of God - without "hearing with the ears", i.e. seeking to contemplate, grasp and internalize the perception in order to come to "understanding in the heart", whereby the perception actually governs one's future actions. It is repentance that brings true healing (Likutey Moharan I, 6).
"And I said, until when, O Lord?" - "How long will they harden their hearts and not listen?" "And He said, Until the cities be wasted." - "I know that they will not repent until the punishments come upon them and they go into exile" (verse 10 with Rashi's explanations ad loc.).
"And if one tenth remain in it, then that shall again be consumed." When this prophecy was given in the reign of Uzziah, ten kings were yet destined to rule in Judah prior to the exile: Yotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Menasheh, Ammon, Josiah, Yeho-ahaz, Yeho-yakikm, Yeho-yachin and Tzedekiah (Metzudas David, RaDaK). The image of the oak tree and the terebinth repeatedly shedding their leaves (v 13) expresses how all the sinners will be successively cast off with repeated refining until only the trunk of the tree - the complete Tzaddikim who will return to God with all their hearts - will be left (Rashi on v 12).
"And it was in the days of Ahaz." (verse 1). The prophecy in the previous chapter was dated to the year that King Uzziah was struck with leprosy. Uzziah lived another twenty-five years during which his son Yotham was regent. Yotham then reigned in his own right for sixteen years, after which he was succeeded by King Ahaz. The invasion of Judah by the armies of Retzin king of Aram and Pekah ben Ramaliah king of Israel took place in the early years of King Ahaz (see II Chronicles 28:5-8 & 16). Thus we have now fast-forwarded over forty-one years from the previous chapter to the present chapter, yet the two prophecies are thematically linked because we now see Isaiah engaged in his mission of reproof despite the stubbornness of his listeners.
"Ahaz son of Yotham son of Uzziah." (v 1). "Why does the text trace Ahaz' lineage? To explain why Retzin and Pekah were unable to fight against Jerusalem (as it says in v 1) - because the merit of Ahaz' fathers Uzziah and Yotham protected him. The ministering angels said to the Holy One blessed be He, 'This king is wicked', but He said to them, 'His fathers were righteous Tzaddikim and I cannot stretch out My hand against him'" (Rashi on v 1).
V 2: "And it was told to the House of David" - "Because Ahaz was wicked, it does not mention his name" (Rashi; cf. v 13).
The narrative in II Chronicles 28 about the joint campaign against Judah by the Arameans and the kingdom of Israel tells of the colossal blow they struck. Pekah alone slew Judean 120,000 warriors in one day, and leading members of the Ahaz' household were killed. This would explain why "his heart was moved and the heart of his people as the trees of the forest are moved with the wind" (v 2).
"And HaShem said to Isaiah, Go out now to meet Ahaz, you and She'ar-yashuv your son." While the simple meaning is that She'ar-yashuv ("the remainder will return") was Isaiah's son, Targum renders "the remainder of your students who have not sinned and who have repented of sin" - i.e. Isaiah went out with his students, who are called sons.
The specification of the precise location of Isaiah's encounter with King Ahaz - in "the highway of the field of the washer (KOVEIS)" (v 3) - is explained in Talmud Sanhedrin 104a as alluding to Ahaz' having tried to hide (KOVEISH) his face from Isaiah out of shame. Because of this shame Ahaz merited not to be enumerated among the wicked kings who have no share in the world to come.
The prophet reassured the king that Retzin and Pekah were nothing more than smoking firebrands (wooden rods used repeatedly to turn the logs of a fire until the rods are so thin that they are useless and are discarded). Rashi explains that "Ben Tav'al" - whom they wanted to appoint as king of Jerusalem - was none other than Pekah ben Remaliah himself: in the ALBAM cipher (where Aleph is replaced with Lamed, Beis with Mem etc.) TaVAL = ReMaL[i]A.
But God said this would not come to pass. "Within sixty-five years Ephraim shall be broken in pieces and no more be a people" (v 8). Rashi explains that the exile of the Ten Tribes was to take place not sixty-five years after Isaiah's present prophecy but rather, sixty-five years after the prophecy about it by his teacher Amos, which was delivered two years before Uzziah was struck with leprosy (Amos 1:1). Uzziah had lived for 27 years after that prophecy; Yotham and Ahaz then reigned for 16 years each, followed by Hezekiah, in the sixth year of whose reign the Ten Tribes went into exile. 27 + 16 + 16 + 6 = 65.
Vv 10ff tell how God asked Ahaz to specify a sign of his own choosing that would testify to the truth of the prophecy, but Ahaz disingenuously declined, excusing himself on the grounds that he did not want to "test" God - "I don't want His name to be sanctified through me" (Rashi on v 12; see RaDaK).
Accordingly God himself gave a sign: "Behold, the young woman is with child, and she will bear a son." This cannot be a prophecy of the birth of Ahaz' son Hezekiah since he was already nine years old when Ahaz came to the throne (Rashi on v 14; RaDaK on v 15). RaDaK states that the prophesied son was either a son who would be born to Isaiah's wife or another son who would be born to Ahaz. The essence of the prophetic sign was that by the time this son would have the intelligence to distinguish between right and wrong - at about the age of three or four years old - the threat to Judah from Aram and the kingdom of Israel would disappear. Indeed, in the fourth year of the reign of Ahaz, by which time the newborn son would have been three years old, the Assyrians conquered and exiled Aram, killing Retzin (II Kings 16:9), while Pekah ben Remaliah was killed in the same year in a conspiracy (ibid. 15:30).
It is perfectly obvious that it would have been quite pointless for Isaiah to have offered Ahaz a sign that would only take place more than 400 years after his death - yet this is exactly how some Christians try to explain this passage, claiming that a prophetic allusion to the "virginal conception" of their founder is contained in the words, "Behold, the young woman (ALMAH) is with child." This interpretation is based upon a severe distortion of the meaning of the Hebrew word ALMAH, which cannot be a virgin since it is specifically used in Proverbs 30:19 to refer to a maiden with whom a man has intercourse. ALMAH is simply the feminine form of ELEM meaning a "young man" (I Samuel 17:56). RaDaK on v 15 cites a work called Sepher HaBris (The Book of the Covenant) written by his father decisively refuting such distortions of the meaning of our text.
"HaShem will bring upon you and your people and upon the house of your father days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah, namely the king of Assyria" (v 17). Isaiah had already alluded to the looming specter of Assyria (Isaiah 5:25ff), which was soon to become a world empire that would radically transform the geopolitical realities of the entire region. Yet although the Assyrian armies would occupy all of Judah at the time of Sennacherib's siege against Jerusalem , God would "shave them with a hired razor" (for which one only pays money because it is very sharp, Metzudas David), miraculously decimating his army and killing his officers and finally Sennacherib himself. Although the vineyards of Judah would become prey to briers and thorns, its hills and mountains would provide pasture for plentiful sheep and cattle bringing great blessing to the inhabitants (vv 21, 23 and 25). God's miraculous providence over Judah even amidst the worst ructions would prove that God is with us - IMMANU-EL.
Isaiah 6:1-13, 7:1-6 and 9:5-6 are read as the Haftara of Parshas Yisro (Ex. 18:1-20:23) containing the account of the Giving of the Torah.
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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