Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
ISAIAH CHAPTER 27
V 1: "On that day HaShem will with His harsh, great and mighty sword punish Leviathan the slant serpent and Leviathan the crooked serpent and He shall slay the dragon that is in the sea." RaDaK (ad loc.) states that this verse alludes to the overthrow of the nations in the war of Gog and Magog. Rashi (ad loc.) explains that "Leviathan the slant serpent" refers to Egypt and "Leviathan the crooked serpent" to Assyria (both of which are mentioned explicitly at the end of this chapter, verse 13) while the "dragon that is in the sea" refers to Edom-Rome.
V 2: "On that day sing to her: A vineyard of foaming wine." After the future redemption the nations will sing this song in praise of Israel . In Isaiah's earlier allegory about Israel as God's vineyard (Isaiah 5:2), he had complained that despite being tended so carefully, the vineyard produced bad grapes. In contrast, at the time of the future salvation it will produce the best wine!
The following verses (3-6) are highly allusive. While our commentators interpret them in a variety of different ways, they are agreed that they refer to God's unique protective providence over Israel during their exile and/or at the time of the redemption. God may punish them, but He does not give vent to all His fury. Rashi interprets these verses as God's appeal to Israel to repent in order to enable Him to answer the attribute of Justice, which objects that Israel also sin and should thus be treated no differently from the nations. If Israel will only repent, God will be able to exact retribution from "those who make war against Me - that is, ISHMAEL" without the attribute of Justice being able to protest (Rashi on v 4).
"Oh let him take hold of My strength that he make peace for Me" (v 5): God appeals to Israel to take hold of His Torah, which is His "strength", for this will assuage His anger and frustration at not being able to take vengeance on His enemies, and He will then have peace from the attribute of Justice, which will no longer be able to make accusations against Israel (see Rashi ad loc.).
In time to come, when Israel will repent, they will take root and flourish and fill the earth with fruit (v 6).
Vv 7ff continue with God's "appeal" to Israel to repent, pointing out that He has never smitten them in the same way as He has smitten the nations that have risen up against them (v 7). Rather, He has contended with them only in a measured way (v 8). For this reason all that is required of them in order to merit their redemption is to destroy their idolatrous altars (v 9) because if they repent of idolatry they will come to repent for all their other sins as well (RaDaK ad loc.).
"For the fortified city will be solitary." (v 10). Rashi paraphrases: "For if they do this [i.e. if Israel repents], the fortified city of ISHMAEL shall be solitary." It is noteworthy that twice in his commentary on this chapter Rashi singles out Ishmael as the chief contender against Israel at the end of days. ".There shall the calf feed." (v 10). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that this alludes to Ephraim, who is compared to a calf (Jer. 31:17), and who will in time to come inherit the territories that will be abandoned by Israel 's enemies.
"And it shall come to pass on that day that HaShem shall beat out His harvest from the strongly flowing river as far as the brook of Egypt." God's ingathering of the exiles is compared to the way a harvester beats the stalks and branches with a rod in order to separate the berries and gather them together (Metzudas David). The "strongly flowing river" is either the Euphrates (Rashi) or the River Sambation (RaDaK), to the other side of which the Ten Tribes were taken into exile by the Assyrians. From there they doubtless spread to many parts of the world, and from all of these they will be gathered in.
"And on that day a great shofar shall be blown." (v 13). The "great shofar" alludes to the spirit of prophecy that will come into the world in the final redemption to signal to the lost souls that the time of the ingathering has arrived. The prophet promises that in the final redemption all of the lost members of Israel will be gathered in from all their places of exile in order to worship God on the Temple Mount .
"Woe to the crown of pride of the drunkards of Ephraim." (v 1). After having prophesied the final remedy - the ingathering of all the exiles, including the lost Ten Tribes, at the time of the future redemption - the prophet turns to address the people of his own generation, the "drunkards of Ephraim", the kingdom of the Ten Tribes, who at this time stood on the very threshold of their coming exile at the hands of the Assyrians. This took place during Isaiah's prophetic ministry, in the sixth year of the reign of King Hezekiah.
"Behold the Lord has one who is mighty and strong." (v 2). This alludes to Sennacherib, who was to carry the Ten Tribes into exile.
"On that day HaShem of Hosts will be for a crown of glory and for a diadem of beauty to the residue of His people." (v 5). With the destruction of the sinners, God's "crown of glory" would adorn the remaining Tzaddikim - i.e. Hezekiah and the righteous among the people of Judah (see Rashi and RaDaK ad loc.). He would teach them to practice true justice and give strength to those fighting the war of Torah (Rashi on verse 6).
"But these also reel through wine." (v 7). Here the prophet begins to castigate those in Judah and Benjamin who behaved like the drunkards of Ephraim. "For all tables are filled with vomit and filth." (v 8). The rabbis cited this verse as referring to the tables of those who eat but do not speak words of Torah during their meal (Pirkey Avot 3:3).
"To whom shall one teach knowledge (YOREH DE'AH)?" (v 9). The prophet is complaining that the people have strayed onto the path of evil and nobody is left with sufficient understanding to grasp his message. The phrase YOREH DE'AH was adapted as the name of the second of the four sections of the Arba'ah Turim ("Four Rows") and Shulchan Aruch ("Arranged Table") codes of Torah law, dealing with the laws of Kashrus, Family Purity, Ribis (forbidden interest) and many other important areas of ISSUR VE-HEITER ("what is prohibited and what is permitted").
"For it is precept upon precept. line upon line. here a little and there a little." (v 10). The prophet complains that the people are so intent on their own enjoyment and so far from God's commandments that it is necessary to add fence after fence to protect the law (Metzudas David ad loc.). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that for every commandment that the prophet urged the people to fulfill in the name of HaShem, they adduced a counter-commandment which they felt constrained to fulfill for the sake of their idols.
"For with stammering lips and another tongue shall one speak to this people" (v 11) - "Whoever speaks to them any word of prophecy or reproof seems to them like an unintelligible stammerer" (Rashi ad loc.).
"For He said to them, this is repose - to give respite to the weary." (v 12). God wanted to teach the people the way to true tranquility and rest - by leaving the poor and weak instead of robbing and oppressing them (Metzudas ad loc.) but "they did not want to listen" (v 12) and therefore God would send them oppressors who would impose their own commands on the people in retribution for their neglect of God's commandments (v 13).
Vv 14ff warn the leaders of the people of how God would deal with them because of their boasting that they had made a "covenant with death and an agreement with hell" (v 15). It may be that Isaiah had in mind those fifth columnists in Jerusalem like Shevna the scribe, who plotted to capitulate to Sennacherib thinking that this would save them from death. [After the 1993 "Oslo Agreement" between the Israeli government and the P.L.O. leading Torah scholars applied this verse to those in Israel who thought they could make a protective covenant with terrorists. Thus the Targum renders the phrase "we have made a covenant with death and an agreement with hell" as: "we have made a covenant with a KILLER and we have made peace with a TERRORIST (MECHABEL)".
"Therefore says the Lord God, Behold I am establishing for a foundation in Zion a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation" (v 16). This alludes to Melech HaMashiach (Rashi) and to Hezekiah (Metzudas David & RaDaK). Just like the corner stone is the foundation of the entire building, so the righteous Messianic king is the secure foundation for every believing Israelite. "He that believes shall not make haste" (v 16): "A true believer does not say that if it is true, he should come quickly" (Rashi ad loc.).
The "covenant with death" made by the wicked would only be atoned through the terror that would be unleashed by Sennacherib against Judah (vv 18ff). "For the bed is too short for a man to stretch himself." (v 20): the territory of Judah would be too narrow to accommodate all of Sennacherib's armies (RaDaK ad loc.). The work that God would do in the land of Judah would be "strange" (v 21) because He would use an alien and merciless proxy, i.e. Sennacherib, to carry out His plan. The prophet pleads with the people not to mock him for his prophecies (v 22).
Verses 23-28 present an allegory about how an expert farmer goes about his work, sowing and later processing each crop in the way uniquely suited to it. God is the "plowman" while Israel is the "land". The "plowman" prepared the "land" for sowing by taking Israel out of Egypt with many miracles. But the work of plowing does not continue for ever. As soon as the land is ready, it is time to "sow" the seeds. Thus God gave Israel the Torah and the commandments, but different people are on different levels and the different crops have to be tended in different ways in order to bring each to perfection. The work of threshing (separating the grain from the chaff) cannot go on for too long because if it does, all the berries will disintegrate. It would be better for the people to imbibe the message of rebuke (the "threshing") quickly instead of being stubborn and having to be beaten down continuously (see Rashi and RaDaK).
"This also came from HaShem of hosts: He is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom" (v 29). Just as the "farmer" uses many subtle skills in producing a diversity of good crops, so God exercises His providence in the most wondrous ways in order to bring all the diverse souls to produce their crop of good deeds, each in accordance with its own unique potential.
The Haftara of the first parshah in the book of Exodus, SHEMOS (according to the custom of the Ashkenazi communities) consists of selections from the chapters discussed in the present commentary: Isaiah 27:6-13; 28:1-13 and 29:22-23.
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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