I’ve been surprised lately at how much I’ve been allowing politics and current events to seep into my Tanakh reflections. But I guess now that there’s less narrative to contend with, and more of a need to draw out connections, it’s only natural. Today is the last chapter of Isaiah, which has been the longest book that I’ve read thus far. It’s been a different challenge from the earlier books of Nevi’im, where I was hard-pressed to find meaning in lists of names and battle stories. Instead, I’ve been reading lyrical poetry and picking verses to delve deeper into. I’m a former English geek, so I’m interested to see the differences in tone as I move on to the next prophet, Jeremiah. With over 50 chapters in that book, there’s a lot to get acquainted with, and it should take me through the rest of the summer.
As has happened many times before, there’s a verse in this final chapter that jumped out at me for its relevance. This morning, I woke up to the news that last night in Israel, a thirteen year old girl was brutally murdered in her bed by a Palestinian terrorist. She was butchered, for no reason other than blind hatred. And now her mother, her father, her sisters, and all of Israel, are deprived of her light, of the person that she would have grown into. How can a mother be expected to get over a loss like that?
“Like a man whose mother consoles him, so will I console you, and in Jerusalem, you shall be consoled (Isaiah 66:13).” There are no words. If, God forbid, I encountered horror like that in the loss of my loved one, I can only imagine that I’d be full of rage, hate, anger. I don’t know how anyone could be consoled after a loss like that, but here we are taught that God is there to console us. I don’t know if I believe that, but my prayer as I close this book is that the family of Hallel Yaffe Ariel be comforted among the mourners of Jerusalem, and that her memory will always be a blessing.
“A wolf and a lamb shall graze together, and a lion, like cattle, shall eat straw, and a serpent-dust shall be his food; they shall neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mount,’ says the Lord (Isaiah 65:25).” I feel like I’ve written something similar to this a few times as I’ve read through this book, but when I read prophecies like this, all I can think about is why they haven’t come true. Over the last few years, it feels like the world has deteriorated, with acts of terror being committed at such a high rate that we’ve become almost complacent to them. Yesterday, the airport in Istanbul was bombed by ISIS, and more than thirty innocent people are dead. It’s getting to the point where it’s scary to go anywhere, because you never know when you could be the one who just happens to be in the place that’s attacked. My husband is going to be in the Istanbul airport next week. Who’s to say that he’ll be safe? Or that any of us will be?
But in this text, God tells His prophet that no one will destroy on the holy mountain, Jerusalem. This obviously hasn’t been true – terror attacks in Jerusalem are tragically regular. So when will this utopian vision come to be?
For the first time in months, I wasn’t able to do my chapter yesterday. I was at a conference, staying in a hotel with terrible internet, and when I woke up this morning I realized that I had missed a day. It’s been amazing for me to see how deeply I can commit to a project, and I’m wondering how I can apply this discipline to other areas of my life. So for today, two blog chapters in one blog post so I can get back on track!
“And I looked and there was no one helping, and I was astounded and there was no one supporting, and My arm saved for Me, and My fury – that supported Me (Isaiah 63:5).” Maybe I’m reading the wrong message into this verse, but I’m coming out of a two-day philanthropy education conference, and to me this verse is compelling in its message of giving. How often do any of us see some kind of injustice in the world, and there seems to be nobody helping those who are suffering? There are so many problems that I think are obvious, and sometimes I even have solutions in mind. But that doesn’t automatically generate action, and without that support, even the most brilliant ideas may disappear into a vacuum.
“And now, O Lord, You are our father; we are the clay, and You are our potter, and all of us are Your handiwork (Isaiah 64:7).” If all of us are the handiwork of God, and He is shaping our actions, I feel that we should be even more compelled to continue to create the world in God’s image. Imagine if each of our actions was taken with the mentality that God is the one shaping it. How differently would you behave?
“For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent, for the sake of Jerusalem I will not rest, until her righteousness comes out like brilliance, and her salvation burns like a torch (Isaiah 62:1).” This verse is honestly one of my favorite ones so far. It’s inspiring, and I feel deeply connected to the message that I’m reading into it. So, to delve into it: I feel a strong pull, an obligation and a calling to what I see as the holy work of standing up for Israel and the Jewish people. I’ve chosen to make my career as a Jewish educator, to engage with others in meaningful ways that connect them to Israel and their Jewish identities. Part of that regularly involves advocating for Israel, online, in person, and however else necessary. Far too often, there are people who are so willing to believe the best in everyone else, but the worst in the Jewish State. They’re comfortable spreading lies and hate speech, or just plain ignorance. As a Zionist, a lover of Israel, and a committed Jew, I feel that it’s my obligation to stand up for Israel. I believe that everyone in the world has a mission, something that they’re compelled to do for a higher purpose, and this is mine.
God tells us something about His nature. “For I am the Lord, Who loves justice, hates robbery in a burnt offering; and I gave their wage in truth, and an everlasting covenant I will make for them (Isaiah 61:8).” My understanding of this verse is that God is conveying to humanity that He cares more about the intent and process than the outcome of a person’s actions. If a person steals and gives their offering falsely, no matter how wonderful it is, it doesn’t have the same impact as a more modest or imperfect gift given honestly and from the heart. If someone has millions, acquired through cheating and dishonesty, no matter how much they donate to charity, their money is still false and dirty. But if a person gives kindly and honestly of the little that they can, God appreciates it and retains the covenant between Himself and humanity. To me, this demonstrates that any of us are capable of getting close to God, regardless of what our other capabilities or limitations might be.
This chapter goes into great detail about the tributes that the nations of the world will give to Israel when the prophecy is eventually fulfilled. “The glory of the Lebanon shall come to you, box trees, firs, and cypresses together, to glorify the place of My sanctuary, and the place of My feet I will honor. And the children of your oppressors shall go to you bent over, and those who despised you shall prostrate themselves at the soles of your feet, and they shall call you ‘the city of the Lord, Zion of the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 60:13-14).'” The tribute that other nations will give to Israel, and the praise that will be heaped upon the people and on God. As God’s chosen people, we will be the de facto vessels that the exultations that people want to give to God will go through, to a degree. Now, I’m pretty sure that everyone agrees that gifts and praise are great. Everyone enjoys being adored, and being gifted. But for whole nations to be obligated to effectively subjugate themselves before others, allowing certain people to establish dominance over the inhabitants of the earth, has the potential to be greatly problematic. It seems like a recipe for corruption and misuse of power, if not kept in check by a strong moral code. How can something like this be regulated? Or is that a natural bi-product of the messianic age?
Although we read a lot about aspiring to righteousness, and the importance of adhering to God’s way, we also know that both historically and currently, humans repeatedly fall short of this goal. “For our transgressions against You are many, and our sins have testified against us, for our transgressions are with us, and our iniquities – we know them (Isaiah 59:12).” The thing that interests me the most about this verse is that the speaker states that we’re aware of our own iniquities and shortcomings. So much of being able to change ourselves and improve comes from acknowledging where we need work on things, and to take note of where we’re falling short of our best selves. Of course, not reaching one’s goals doesn’t inevitably mean that a person is transgressing. Therefore, in both regards, in terms of committing transgressions and iniquities, we need to aspire to overcome, to do our best to be the most complete, whole versions of ourselves.
“And you draw out your soul to the hungry, and an afflicted soul you sate, then your light shall shine in the darkness, and your darkness shall be like noon (Isaiah 58:10).” I love this verse. It seems fitting that I’m reading it today, the official start of summer, and the longest day of the year. The summer solstice means that the sun is out longer today than any other day. This verse goes beyond the natural though, into a mythical understanding of light. It’s a light that emerges from the goodness in the world, eradicating naturally occurring darkness because of our actions. Each of us can be responsible for adding additional light to the world, to the lives of others, and to the future. What can we do to bring that extra light today?
“‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked (Isaiah 57:21).'” I hope this is true. This is one of the verses of Tanakh that seems to make sense from a karma mindset. If someone is wicked, they don’t deserve peace. They should suffer from their evilness, and should be guilty inside about the things that they do. But it seems like too often, there isn’t this give and take. People who are wicked, or who do wicked things, don’t experience the guilt that some of us believe they should. They often end up justifying their less than justifiable actions, and don’t feel the guilt that others would feel if they committed such acts. Is this because they aren’t held accountable for their actions? Or because they believe that there’s an explicable reason for even the most heinous acts?
Switching gears, let’s talk about Shabbat. “Fortunate is the man who will do this and the person who will hold fast to it, he who keeps the Sabbath from profaning it and guards his hand from doing any evil (Isaiah 56:2).” I’ve thought a lot lately about what it means to keep Shabbat. Now, I’m most definitely not shomer Shabbat [Shabbat observant] in any sort of technical sense. I use my phone, because I love being able to catch up with my far-flung family and friends. I watch TV, because I use it to unwind. I could go on and on justifying my vices, but that’s not the point here. The point is, what does it mean to keep Shabbat? I know what it means according to halacha and traditional, Orthodox Judaism. But to me? It means acknowledging something separate, something holy. It means marking the day as sacred, and developing rituals that speak to that. That’s my Shabbat.