Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
ISAIAH CHAPTER 53
THE SUFFERING SERVANT
The present chapter is famous for its depiction of God's tormented servant, reviled and persecuted by those around him, for whose sins he atones through his illness and suffering.
"Who would have believed our report.?" (v 1). All of our classical Bible commentators are agreed that these are the words with which the astonished nations of the world will express their amazement when they see the future greatness and glory of Israel as they will be revealed at the time of the redemption (see Rashi, Metzudas David and RaDaK on v 1). The prophecy in our present chapter thus flows naturally from the closing words of the previous chapter describing the wonderment of the nations in time to come when they will see Israel's ascent from such depths (Is. 52:14-15).
The nations will be astonished because Israel 's future greatness will be the complete negation of their perception of the "Golus Jew" - Israel in exile, "despised and rejected of men; a man of pains and acquainted with sickness, like one hiding his face from us; he was despised and we did not esteem him" (v 3).
"But in truth he has born our sicknesses." (v 4). In time to come the nations will arrive at the realization that Israel 's very suffering throughout their exile came to atone for the sins of the nations, protecting them from the evils that should have come upon them. "But now we see that it was not because of their lowliness that evil befell Israel but rather, they were wracked with suffering so that all the nations would gain atonement through the suffering of Israel : the illness that was fit to come upon us was born by Israel .. We used to think that Israel was hated by God, but this was not the case: he was 'wounded because of our transgressions, bruised because of our iniquities. He suffered in order that we might have peace' (v 5)" (Rashi on vv 4-5).
RaDaK on verse 4 comments that the concept that anyone could gain atonement through the suffering of another appears to contradict the principle that "a son shall not bear the sin of the father and a father shall not bear the sin of the son" (Ezekiel 18:20). If so, how can one person gain atonement through another or one nation through another? In the course of his lengthy discussion, RaDaK explains that when the nations come realize that they believed in falsehood all along while Israel alone adhered to the true faith, the nations themselves will reason that if Israel suffered during their exile, it must have been to protect and atone for the nations. The entire passage may also be read as an expression of wonderment and retroactive understanding by the Israelite BEINONIM (intermediate, ordinary people) and RESHAIM (the wicked) when they see the future vindication of the Tzaddikim who remained loyal to God's Torah.
The simple meaning of this passage proves that the concept that a righteous Tzaddik has the power to atone for others in his lifetime and through his death is soundly based in Torah prophecy. In the words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal): "Suffering and pain may be imposed on a Tzaddik as an atonement for his entire generation. Such suffering also includes cases where a Tzaddik suffers because his entire generation deserves great punishments bordering on annihilation but is spared via the Tzaddik's suffering. In addition there is a special higher type of suffering that comes to a Tzaddik who is even greater and more highly perfected than the ones discussed above. to provide the help necessary to bring about the chain of events leading to the ultimate perfection of mankind as a whole" (Derech HaShem II:3).
"He was cut off from the land of the living for the transgression of the people to whom the stroke was due" (v 8) - "He was cut off and exiled from the land of the living - this is the Land of Israel - for on account of the sin of My people (i.e. Israel) this plague came upon the Tzaddikim among them (Rashi)."He let his grave be among the wicked and gave himself over to death at the hands of the wealthy, and there was no deceit in his mouth" (v 9) - "Rather than deny the living God, he sacrificed his life whenever the wicked nations decreed death, causing [the Jews] to be buried like donkeys, i.e. eaten by the dogs, and was willing to face every kind of death at the hands of the wealthy rulers rather than undertake to perpetrate injustice like all the nations among whom he lived. He would not accept idolatry" (synopsis of Rashi ad loc.).
"But it pleased HaShem to crush him by disease: if his soul shall consider it a recompense for guilt, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the purpose of HaShem shall prosper in his hand" (v 10). The Talmud comments: "Everyone whom HaShem favors, He crushes with suffering, as it says in this verse. Could this be so even if the person does not accept it with love? No, because it says 'if his soul shall consider it a recompense for guilt (ASHAM)': just as the ASHAM (guilt sacrifice) was only offered voluntarily out of the person's loving desire to repent, so one must accept suffering with love. And if he does, what is his reward? 'He will see his seed, he shall prolong his days.'. And moreover, his Torah study will endure in his hand, as it says, '.the purpose of HaShem shall prosper in his hand'" (Berachos 5a).
"Sing O barren one, you who did not bear." (v 1). Immediately following Isaiah's depiction of Israel as God's long-suffering servant comes this most beautiful prophecy of their future glory in our present chapter vv 1-17. ".For more numerous are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife" (v 1). The "desolate" refers to Jerusalem as she was before the redemption, while the "married wife" refers to the daughter of Edom (Rashi ad loc.)
As in the case of some of Isaiah's previous prophecies about the redemption, the present prophecy of joy over the great expansion of the population of Israel at the time of the ingathering of the exiles (vv 3-4) - which has been and continues to be fulfilled in our days - has contributed phrases to the LECHA DODI song welcoming the Sabbath.
In vv 5-10, God consoles Israel over the pains of their exile in the way that a husband conciliates the beloved wife of his youth following a brief display of anger, reassuring them that nothing will ever cause God's faithful love to depart from them or His covenant of peace to be removed.
"O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest and not comforted." (v 11). Still suffering from the ravages of the exile, Israel is not consoled, yet God promises that a most glorious future awaits her. "And all your children shall be taught of HaShem and great shall be the peace of your children" (v 13).
In verse 14 the prophet teaches the simple pathway to redemption: "Through righteousness (TZEDAKAH, charity) you shall be established: keep away from oppression, and then you shall not fear."
"Behold, they may well gather (GOR YA-GUR) together, but not by Me: whoever shall gather (GAR) together against you shall fall for your sake" (v 15). According to this simple rendering of the verse, God is promising that even if the nations gather to make war against Israel , they will fall. Targum refers this to the war of Gog and Magog at the end of days. However, the Talmud darshens the same Hebrew words of the verse differently, citing it as the scriptural basis for its teaching that "converts will not be accepted in the days of Mashiach, just as converts were not accepted in the days of David and Solomon" (Yevamos 24b). The reason for this is that Israel 's great status in those times would give the gentiles ulterior, impure motives for converting. The DRASH is based on the threefold appearance in the verse of the root GAR, which not only means "gather" but also has the connotation of "dwell", and a GER is a convert who comes to "dwell" with Israel . Rashi (on Yevamos loc. cit.) explains the Midrashic meaning of the verse as: "'One who comes to convert should dwell without Me' - i.e. during the time when I am not yet with you, i.e. during the exile. 'Only he who dwells with you.' - i.e. in your time of lowliness - '.shall rest (YIPOL, cf. Gen. 25:18) with you' i.e. in the world to come."
"No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper." (v 17). None of the weapons that Iran, Hamas, Hizbullah or anyone else may dream up will ever succeed in dislodging Israel from their God-given land.
* * * Isaiah 54:1-10 is read as the fifth Haftara of consolation on Shabbos Parshas TI SEITZEI (Deut.16:18-21:9) * * *
* * * The passages in Isaiah 54:11-17 and 55:1-5 are read as the third Haftara of consolation on Shabbos Parshas Re'eh, Deut. 11:26-16:17 * * *
* * * Isaiah 54:1-17 and 55:1-5 is read as the Haftara of Parshas NOAH (Gen. 6:9-11:32). * * *
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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