Isaiah: A Message For Our Time

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I would like to begin by asking how are we to react to the events of the past week? How are we to react when we see our enemies celebrating after they killed some Jews, and after they embarrassed Israel. I would like to turn Makos 24a for the answer. The story is that Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues were walking in northern Italy, near Rome. They were able to hear the Romans celebrating from a tremendous distance–120 Mil. A great distance. Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues began to cry. But Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They turned to him, and said, “Why are you laughing?” He said, “Why are you crying?” “Why are we crying?!–The Romans, who are idol worshippers, are celebrating. They are so loud and boisterous that we could hear them from this incredible distance. Whereas the Temple is destroyed.” Rabbi Akiva answered, “If God rewards the Romans, who are idol worshippers that don’t listen to Him, with such peace and serenity that they could celebrate in such a manner, how much more so will God reward us, the Jews, who follow the words of God!”

That is how we respond to the Arabs celebrating. But we shall return to this Gemara later.

First let us ask a question. What is Tisha B’av? What are we supposed to be thinking about? Of course, it is a day of mourning, a day of remembering the terrible things that happened to the Jews, specifically the destruction of the Temples. But to find out what Tisha B’av is all about, let us look at this week’s Haftorah portion, Isaiah.

It seems from Isaiah that he rebuked, and spoke, to the Jews–almost like a rabbi who gets up at a podium such as this one. Isaiah is speaking to the Jews of their terrible practices. Isaiah rebukes the Jews, telling them that are worse than animals (Isaiah 1:3); an animal recognizes its master, a donkey recognizes where its food comes from. Isaiah says that the Jews are ungrateful (1:2, 3), unable to reform (1:5) corrupt and degenerate (1:4, 6, 21, 22) and are perverting justice (1:23).

But this criticism of Isaiah reminds me of a story. In the beginning of the 20th century in the United States, a certain synagogue imported a rabbi from Europe. Now there was world of difference between the rabbi, from some village in Europe, and his new congregation in the United States. The first Shabbos, the rabbi gets up speaks about keeping Shabbos. After his speech, the president approaches and begs him to not to speak about Shabbos–it’s a sensitive subject for the members of the synagogue. Ok, the next week the rabbi get up on Shabbos and speaks about keeping Kosher. Again the president approaches him after the speech and asks him to refrain from the subject, as it is a sensitive matter. Fine, the next Shabbos the rabbi gets up and speaks about putting on Tefillin. And again, the president tell him that this is a sensitive issue that should not be talked about. “What should I speak about?” asks the rabbi. The president says, “Speak about Yiddishkiet.” Speak about Yiddishkiet.

But this is what we see in Isaiah. Why is he speaking about such general things: perverting justice, ect. Why doesn’t he speak about specific sins that are being committed, such as idolatry and murder. At this time, many of the kings of Israel are setting up and worshipping idols. People are being murdered. The prophet Uriah was murdered. Jeremiah, they tried to murder. Isaiah himself ended up being murdered. Why isn’t Isaiah speaking about these specific, terrible things?

Let us go back to Makkos, 24b. There is another story with Rabbi Akivah walking with his colleagues. When they arrive at the site of the ruined Temple, they see a fox walk out. Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues cry. Rabbi Akiva laughs. They demand to know why he was laughing. He asks them why they are crying. They answer that the law dictates that no foreigner may a enter the inner-sanctum of the Temple, and now a fox is walking about–in line with the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Rabbi Akivah responds that that is why he laughing. For the Prophet Isaiah had said (8:2), that he will take as witnesses to record, Uriah and Zechariah. Now the obvious question is, Uriah lived in the First Temple era, and Zechariah lived in the second Temple era. How could they both be witnesses to the same event? Rather they are witnesses to two aspects of the prophecy. Uriah had said (Micha 3:12) that the Temple will be ploughed like a field, and Zechariah (8:4) had prophesied that old men and women will sit in peace and serenity in Jerusalem–alluding to future redemption. Rabbi Akiva concluded that now that he had witnessed the first part of the testimonial prophesy–that the Temple would be destroyed–he is certain that the second part of the prophesy–that old people will sit peacefully in Jerusalem–will come true as well.

We see from here a remarkable idea. That mourning, that remembrance of the terrible things that happened in the past, is only half of it. The other half, is being certain about the great things in the future. Tisha B’av incorporates this duality. Remembering the destruction of the past, which leads to rejuvenation in the future.

Maybe that’s why Isaiah is speaking in such general terms. Isaiah is not only rebuking his generation, he is speaking to us. Isaiah did not speak of specifics, because, perhaps, he knew that in 2017 we wouldn’t be in a situation where we were murdering prophets. Isaiah speaks in generalities. He is saying that the same base instincts that made men of his time worship idols and murder prophets, are actually what make people pervert justice and be ungrateful at all times, including our own.

Isaiah says further (1:16-18) that we should atone by pursuing justice. He says that even if our sins are as red as scarlet, God will make them white as snow. He is speaking to us. Isaiah’s prophecy is about the destruction, but it’s also about rebirth, about rejuvenation.

My blessing is that in the same way that we see that the prophecy of Zechariah is being fulfilled:

Zechariah ( 8:12)  writes, in the prophesy that we mentioned, a few lines down, “For as the seed of peace, the vine shall give her fruit, and the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to inherit all these things.”

“The vine shall give her fruit”. Everyone knows about Israel’s wine. I don’t know too much about wine, but I am told Israel produces good wine today. “The ground shall give her increase”. Israel today has more fruit trees than nearly at any point in twenty centuries. “The heavens shall give their dew.” Israel today has the best water system in the world, better than Spain, which is number two. Spain gets silver, Israel gets gold.

In the same way that we see the prophecies of Zechariah fulfilled, may we also see the prophecies of Isaiah (2:2,3) fulfilled. “And it shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.”

(Transcript of a speech given in shul.)

Author: 004

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