Avraham ben Yaakov
ISAIAH CHAPTER 49
Having uttered harsh prophesies about the future downfall of the nations (Assyria, Babylon, Moab, Damascus, Egypt, Duma, Tyre and Sidon etc.), and having urged his own people to repent without effect, Isaiah now rises to defend himself, proclaiming that it is God who called him as His prophet, putting words sharp as weapons in his mouth (vv 1-2).
"And He said to me, you are my servant, Israel , in whom I will be glorified" (v 3). God was telling Isaiah that because of his exemplary service, he is accounted as the equivalent of all the throngs of Israel , whose national mission is to give glory to God. "When a person regularly studies the Bible, reviews the laws of the Torah, serves Torah scholars and conducts his business affairs with others in an agreeable manner, what do people say? Happy is his father! See how beautiful are his ways and how well-ordered are his deeds! Of him the verse says, 'And He said to me, you are my servant, Israel , in whom I will be glorified '" (Yoma 86a).
"Then I said, I have labored for emptiness, I have spent my strength for devastation and vanity" (v 4): In this verse, the prophet tells how he felt apprehensive that he may not have found favor with God because he has rebuked the people but they have not paid attention (Metzudas David). However in verse 5 God immediately reassures him that by seeking to bring Israel to repent he has gained great honor in His eyes. In reward for his efforts, not only will he be a prophet to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Moreover, he will also be "a light to the nations, so that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth" (v 6). "I shall add another great gift for you, because I shall make you the prophet and harbinger of the future redemption, which will be for a light to all the nations, because they will all go in the light of HaShem and believe in Me, so that then My salvation shall reach from one end of the earth to the other, for everyone will be saved through God's salvation" (Metzudas David ad loc.).
God's promise to Isaiah about his reward is followed immediately in verse 7 by a resounding prophesy that Israel's redemption will surely take place, despite the fact that the prospect seems so far-fetched because they are so despised and abhorred by the nations (as is the case today). Nevertheless, kings and princes will rise and prostrate when they see how God will fulfill his promise to His chosen people. Despite the seeming impossibility of the redemption, "Thus says HaShem: In a time of favor I shall answer you and on the day of salvation I shall help you." (v 8). We ourselves can create this time of favor (RATZON) by carrying out God's will (RATZON) through keeping His Torah (see Metzudas David on v 8). Verses 9-13 depict the spiritual liberation that the redemption will bring to those now imprisoned in the darkness of exile, who will return from all corners of the earth.
Yet Israel finds it hard to believe in the promise of the future redemption. "But Zion said, HaShem has forsaken me." (v 14). God reassures them: "Can a woman forget her suckling child.?" (v 15). Targum on v 15 amplifies the allusions contained in the thrice-repeated concept of "forgetting" contained in this verse. "Can a woman forget her son and not show love to the child of her womb? The Assembly of Israel answers: If there is no forgetfulness before Him, perhaps He will not forget how I made the golden calf! The prophet answers her: Even these may be forgotten! Israel replies to the prophet: If there is forgetfulness before Him, perhaps He will forget how I said at Sinai, 'We shall do and we shall hear'? The prophet answers: God will surely not reject you!"
God has engraved Israel on the very palms of His hands, as it were, and can never forget them. If the redemption is delayed, it is because "your destroyers and those that lay you waste come forth from you" (v 17) - it is not God but rather the wicked sinners of Israel who cause the destruction of Zion . [This is seen today in the tireless efforts by Israel 's secular political leadership with the full backing of its judiciary, police, the media etc. to uproot Jews from their religious inheritance and their own ancestral land.] Yet God promises that at the time of the ingathering of the exiles, Zion will be astounded at the multitude of her children after having thought that she was completely bereft (vv 18-23). The hundreds of thousands of OLIM who have poured into Israel in the last sixty years and who continue to pour in until today are living testimony to the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy of the ingathering of the exiles as contained in these verses.
"Shall the prey be taken from the mighty or the captive of the victorious be delivered?" (v 24). According to the Targum on this verse, "the mighty" refers to Esau while "the victorious" refers to Ishmael, these being the joint oppressors of Israel in the final exile (see Daniel 2:40ff and commentators there). Zion , still faltering in her faith, asks if it is really possible that Israel will be delivered from such powerful forces, and the prophet answers with a resounding affirmation that God will indeed redeem us.
"Thus says HaShem: Where is the bill of your mother's divorcement with which I have sent her away?" (v 1). God is challenging the doubters in Israel who fear that the length of the exile may be proof of the claim of the nations that He has "divorced" Israel from being His chosen people in favor of the adherents of some later religion. Those who find the yoke of the Torah burdensome often favor the idea that Israel has been "divorced" (as promoted by "replacement theology") since it appears to absolve them from any further obligations. However, the prophet affirms that there has been no "bill of divorce" (=GETT), which means that the original "marriage contract" (=KESUBAH), i.e. the Torah, is still fully binding.
Jeremiah was indeed to say of the exiled Ten Tribes, "And I gave her bill of divorcement to her" (Jer. 3:8) but even this did not mean that they would never return but only that they would not have their own king again, because in time to come they will be united with Judah under the Davidic king Mashiach (Ezekiel 37:19). However, in the case of the tribe of Judah , Isaiah here is saying that there never was any "bill of divorcement" whatever. If God has sent them into exile, it is not as a husband finally divorcing his wife but only as one who temporarily sends her from the house as an expression of anger over her behavior. "You have been sold because of your sins and your mother has been sent away because of your transgressions" (Isaiah 50:1; see RaDaK ad loc.).
God's complaint is that He has called the people to repent and serve Him, but they have not responded. Otherwise He could have saved them from Exile just as he "dried up the sea" when He split the Red Sea to save them from the Egyptians and "made the rivers a wilderness" when He split the Jordan to bring them into the Land of Israel (v 2; see RaDaK ad loc.). Likewise God will "clothe the heavens in blackness and make sackcloth their covering" (v 4) when He casts down the guardian angels of the nations prior to the overthrow of their peoples at the time of the final redemption (Rashi).
The mass of Israel may have failed to repent, but in the very beautiful passage in vv 4-9 Isaiah affirms his own unflinching steadfastness in the pursuit of his prophetic mission despite the hail of blows and abuse he received at the hands of the recalcitrant people. The prophet's words will surely resonate with anyone who has ever tried to promote belief in God and obedience to His Torah among the irreligious and irreverent. So certain was Isaiah of the truth of his prophecies that he saw them as if they would be fulfilled very soon, vindicating him completely: "He Who justifies me is NEAR" (V 8).
In the closing verses of the chapter the prophet invites all the nations to put their trust in God and follow His ways (v 10, see Targum), but the nations refuse to listen, thereby condemning themselves to walk in the burning heat of the fires they themselves have kindled. In our days this would appear to apply to those stoking the fires of war and terror in the Middle East and throughout the world.
* * * Isaiah 49:14-26, 50:1-11 & 51:1-3 are read as the Haftarah of Parshas EKEV (Deut. 7:12-11:25), this being the second of the seven Haftarahs of consolation read Sabbath by Sabbath after Tisha b'Av. * * *
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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