Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
THE PROPHET ISAIAH
Isaiah's father Amotz was himself a prophet. According to rabbinic tradition, Amotz was the brother of King Amatziahu (son of King Jo'ash) of Judah (Megillah 10b), and thus Isaiah was a scion of the royal House of David. His Hebrew name Yishayahu (="God will save") signifies the promise of salvation and consolation that is the main theme of his prophecies. Isaiah's wife's name is unknown: she is simply referred to as "the prophetess" (Is. 8:3). A number of their children are mentioned in our texts and they were given names alluding to various aspects of Israel 's national destiny (Is. 7:3; 7:14; 8:3).
Isaiah was one of the key links in the chain of the Torah tradition: he received it from the prophet Amos and transmitted it in turn to the prophet Micah (Rambam, Introduction to Mishneh Torah). Isaiah's prophetic ministry began on the day of the great "quake" when King Uzziah entered the Temple Sanctuary to try to offer incense (see Rashi on Isaiah 6:1 and on Amos 1:1) and continued throughout the reigns of Yotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah into the reign of Menasheh (who killed him, Yevamos 49b). Isaiah prophesied for longer than all the other prophets and is said to have lived until the age of 120. He mainly prophesied before the king and his ministers. He is considered the greatest of the prophets (Yalkut Shimoni). Isaiah saw all that Ezekiel saw in his prophecy of the Divine Chariot, but while Ezekiel was like a simple villager who once saw the king (because he prophesied outside the land of Israel) and was so impressed that he told all the details, Isaiah was like a man from the great capital (he prophesied in Israel): being accustomed to seeing royalty, he was less overwhelmed by what he saw (Chagigah 13b).
In Isaiah's time the people were far from Torah observance, and King Ahaz energetically promoted idolatry and licentiousness. There were no limits on people's maltreatment of one another and corruption was rife. Isaiah repeatedly warned and rebuked the people, asking them to remember God's great goodness to Israel in each generation. Although he delivered many prophecies relating to the surrounding gentile nations and their destined destruction, the majority of his prophecies consist of consolation to Israel . All the harsh prophecies that Jeremiah delivered against Israel were preceded and sweetened in advance by Isaiah's prophecies of salvation (Eichah Rabbah 1). "What was unique about Isaiah causing him to prophesy more than all the other prophets about Israel 's destined future wellbeing? It was because he accepted the kingship of heaven upon himself with greater joy than the other prophets" (Tanna d'vei Eliahu 16).
ISAIAH CHAPTER 1
Although chosen as the introduction to his book, the "vision" contained in this first chapter was not Isaiah's first prophecy - that is contained in chapter 6 (see Rashi on verse 1 of our present chapter and on Isaiah 6:1). This opening prophecy was given during the reign of Hezekiah, after the Ten Tribes had already gone into exile, as indicated by the fact that it is addressed to Judah and Jerusalem (Rashi on v 1).
Of the four kings mentioned in the first verse, only Ahaz was truly wicked, yet even in the reigns of the other righteous kings such as Yotham, "the people still acted corruptly" (II Chron. 27:2) and they were not whole-hearted with HaShem. For this reason Isaiah opened his rebuke with phrasing closely echoing that of Moses' last rebuke to Israel , "HA-AZEENU! Give ear O heavens. and listen O earth." (Deut. 32:1). The only difference is that Isaiah switched around the two verbs, calling on the heavens to LISTEN and the earth to GIVE EAR. Thus both the heavens and the earth had each heard both expressions and would be able to testify on Israel 's day of calamity that the people had been duly warned (see Rashi on v 2).
"I have reared and brought up children but they have rebelled against Me" (v 2). God has remained faithful to Israel , elevating them above the other nations, but they have failed to reciprocate and act accordingly. An ox knows its owner and does not refuse to plow; a donkey knows who feeds it and does not refuse to carry its load. But although Israel was "acquired" and became "owned" by God through His redeeming them from Egypt , and although they were fed by Him with manna in the wilderness, they did not show gratitude by observing His commandments (see Rashi on v 3).
The people have been repeatedly smitten yet continue to repeat all the deeds that have brought their blows upon them (Rashi on v 5). Vv 5-8 depict the national malady in terms of an illness that has left the entire organism seething with painful wounds that have not been softened with soothing oil - i.e. even the merest hint of some thought of repentance was absent from people's hearts (Rashi on v 6).
"Your land is desolate, your cities have been burned with fire." (v 7). The reign of King Ahaz in particular had been catastrophic for Judah , which was ravaged by the armies of Israel and Aram , while the Edomites attacked from the south east and the Philistines captured the major towns in the lowlands (II Chron. vv 5-7 & 17-18 etc.). Likewise in our times, following the 1967 Six Day War and the return to Israeli sovereignty of extensive territories making up the Promised Land, the secularist orientation of the country's ruling elite has led to the unilateral surrender of most of these territories, so that "as for your land, strangers devour it in your presence" (v 7). As a result "the daughter of Zion " - the few remaining faithful Jews - have been left abandoned and isolated (v 8). Were it not for God's mercy, the entire nation would have suffered the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (v 9).
"Hear the word of HaShem, captains of Sodom . people of Gomorrah " (v 10). The prophet is complaining that the people have become as corrupt as the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah , who were legendary for their wickedness.
"Why do I need the multitude of your sacrifices.?" (v 11). At the same time as the people were sacrificing at their own private altars and cult centers, they continued bringing sacrifices to the Holy Temple on the festivals and new moons etc. In verses 11-15 the prophet warns the people that the outward rote observance of the Temple sacrificial rituals is meaningless and unacceptable to God without inner devotion and penitence. "My Soul hates YOUR new moons and festivals" (v 14): the people did not celebrate them in the name of HaShem but for their own personal gratification. [Rabbi Nachman once quoted this verse to his followers when criticizing them for holding too many festive gatherings when they should have been devoting themselves to prayer and Torah study! Siach Sarfey Kodesh.]
"Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean." (v 16). Verses 16-18 contain ten expressions of purification and self-correction, corresponding to the Ten Days of Penitence from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur and to the ten verses relating to Kingship, Remembrance and the sounding of the Shofar recited in the New Year service (Rashi on v 16).
"Come now and let us reason together." (v 18) - "you and Me, so that we will know who has acted badly to whom, and if it is you who have acted badly towards Me, I still give you hope that you may repent" (Rashi ad loc.). "But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured with the sword, for the mouth of HaShem has spoken" (v 20) - "And where did He speak? 'And I shall bring the sword against you' (Leviticus 26:25; Rashi on verse 20 of our present chapter).
Vv 21-23 depict the total corruption of justice that had become prevalent in the city that was intended to be full of justice. Once it could be said that "righteousness dwells in it" (v 21) - because "the morning Temple sacrifice atoned for the sins of the previous night while the afternoon sacrifice atoned for those of the day" (Rashi ad loc.). But now orphans were unable to persuade the judges to hear their cause, and as a result the case of the widow never even reached the judges at all - because having heard from the orphans how futile their efforts had been, the widow would not even attempt to gain a hearing (see Rashi on v 23). Likewise today many feel that the legal system has become so cumbersome that it is futile to seek justice.
Even as the prophet warns that God will take vengeance on His enemies, he promises that God will eventually restore Israel 's true judges and counselors (vv 25-26). The phraseology of our thrice-daily repeated prayer in the twelfth blessing of SHMONAH ESRAY, "restore our judges." is based upon verse 26.
" Zion will be redeemed with justice and her penitents with charity" (v 27). Wealth, military power and the like cannot bring about Israel 's redemption, but only justice, penitence and charity!
Isaiah chapter 1 vv 1-27 is read as the Haftara on Parshas Devarim on the Shabbos before Tisha B'Av, which is known as Shabbos Chazon ("Shabbos of the Vision") after the first Hebrew word of the text.
"And it shall be at the end of days that the mountain of HaShem 's House shall be established on the top of the mountains." (v 2). Isaiah immediately follows his prophecies of harsh retribution in the previous chapter with this beautiful consolatory vision of the future restoration, which is also prophesied in nearly the exact same phraseology in the prophecy of Isaiah's disciple Micah (4:1ff, see RaDaK ad loc.).
"Wherever it says, 'At the end of days', this refers to the days of Mashiach" (RaDaK on verse 2 of our present text).
".HaShem's House will be established on the top of the MOUNTAINS" (v 2). The simple meaning is that the Temple Mount will be exalted above all other mountains and all the nations will give it honor and come there to serve God instead of the gods they used to serve on all the high mountains (Metzudas David). However the Midrash says that in time to come God will bring Mount Sinai, Tabor and Carmel together and build the Temple upon them (Psikta), implying that the Temple is bound up conceptually with the Giving of the Torah at Sinai and the miracles performed for Deborah and Barak at Mt Tabor and for Elijah on Mt Carmel.
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of HaShem , to the House of the God of JACOB" (V 3). The reason why the Temple is particularly associated with Jacob rather than Abraham and Isaac is discussed at length in The House on the Mountain by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum based on Pesachim 88a).
"And he shall judge between the nations and decide among many people, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares." (v 4). "The judge will be King Mashiach: If any war or claim arises between one nation and another, they will come before King Mashiach for judgment because he will be master over all the nations and he will decide between them and determine who is at fault. For this reason there will no longer be any war between one nation and another, because he will make peace between them and they will not need weapons and they will break them down in order to make agricultural implements" (RaDaK on v 4).
Following this prophecy of Israel 's glorious future, Isaiah returns to his reproof to the nation (vv 5-8). The people have turned to foreign religions and taken foreign wives, fathering alien children who take up all their attention (v 6). They are obsessed with the pursuit of wealth and military might (v 7).
Vv 9ff evoke God's coming Day of Judgment, when all the haughty and arrogant will be cast down. "This will be in the days of Mashiach, when all the nations will gather together to fight against Jerusalem , and then they will see that neither their silver or gold nor their might nor the multitude of their forces will avail them" (RaDaK on v 9). "And HaShem alone shall be exalted on that day" (v 17) - "The world will last for six thousand years, and for one thousand years it will be desolate, as it says, 'And HaShem alone shall be exalted on that day'" (Talmud Rosh HaShanah 31a).
"And the idols shall utterly be abolished" (v 18). RaDaK (ad loc.) comments: "Even though idolatry has already ceased among the majority of nations today, there are still people who worship idols in the Far East . but in the days of Mashiach all the idols will be completely destroyed."
"And they shall go into the holes in the rocks and the caves of the earth for fear of HaShem and for the glory of His majesty." (v 19). On the fearful Day of Judgment, people will be so ashamed of their lifelong obsession with materialism that they will seek to hide themselves away. "On that day a man shall cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold" (v 20): with the coming of Mashiach, people will understand that wealth is of no importance, because only Torah and good deeds are of enduring value.
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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