July 20, 2014

Isaiah - Professor Paul Eidelberg

A. Background
1.  Isaiah was a prophet-statesman active during the years 740-700 BCE. Though connected with the royal family, he never held any office.  He was consulted and gave advice to his king on foreign policy, which advice was more often ignored than heeded.  But unlike other prophets, who preached lofty ideals, Isaiah also sought to embody Jewish ideas and values in the nation's public policies. 
2.  He prophesied in Judah, the southern Kingdom.  He witnessed the destruction of the northern kingdom by Assyria.  He warned what would happen to Judah and Jerusalem.
3.  A native of Jerusalem, he so loved Jerusalem so much that he called it “the daughter of Zion.”  Isaiah 2: 3:  From Zion, of course, the Torah, the Truth, would go forth and enlighten mankind.  But Isaiah was profoundly saddened to see Jerusalem – its government -- filled with so many vices and evils that would lead to Israel’s ruin.
        4.  Israel was caught in a whirlpool of international politics; Assyria to the north, Egypt to the south, and various small nations on the east.  The problem was: what should Judah do to maintain her independence and find security.

5.  Isaiah advised a policy of keeping free of alliances with foreign powers.  Alliances would bring foreign religions and gentile ways into the life of Jerusalem.  He warned King Ahaz against accepting help from Assyria; it would make Judah its vassal, a play thing, a toy.

6.  Only children play with toys.  So Isaiah says:

3:4. "I will give children to be your rulers."
3:5. "The child will behave insolently toward the aged."

What does Isaiah mean?  We have to consult the Talmud, Hagigah 14a:

B. The Talmud

1.  Rabbi Dimi said that eighteen curses did Isaiah pronounce upon Israel, yet his mind did not cool until he pronounced this curse:  “The child shall behave insolently against the aged, and the base against the honorable.”  What were the eighteen curses?

2.  It is written:  “For behold, God will take away from Jerusalem and from Judah stay [support] and staff, every stay of bread, and every stay of water; the mighty man, and the man of war; the judge, and the prophet, and the diviner, and the elder, [and the captain of fifty], and the man of rank, and the counselor, and the wise charmer, and the skilful enchanter.  And I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them.”

a. Stay – this means the masters of the Tanach
b. Staff – this the masters of the Mishna
c. Every stay of bread – this means the masters of the Talmud (Gemara)
d. Every stay of water – this means the master of the Aggada
e. The mighty man -- this means the masters of tradition [having great breadth of learning]
f. The man of war – this means one distinguished for his reasoning power and who knows how to dispute in controversies over the Torah
g. The judge – this means a judge who passes judgment in strictest accord with truth  
h. The prophet –according to the literal meaning of the word [a spokesman of G-d]
i. A diviner [majesty] – this means the King
[j. The Elder – this means one who is worthy to sit as a counselor]
[k. The captain of fifty – means one who knows how to argue in the five books of Torah]
[l. A man of rank – means one for whose sake favor is shown to his generation]
[m. The counselor – means one who know how to determine the intercalation of years and the fixation of months – a master of the calendar]
n. The wise man –this means a disciple who makes his teachers wise
o. The Charmer – at the moment he begins a Torah discourse, people are dumb-founded
[p. The skilful man – means one who know how to distinguish even between similar things]
q. The enchanter – this one who is worthy to be given secrets of the Torah

3.  “And I will give children to be their princes” – means persons who are empty [m’noarim] of Torah and mitzvot.  “And babes shall rule over them,” a second generation of foxes [meaning, cunning people who are nonetheless cunning like children, who think only of their own pleasure].

4. So Isaiah warns: "Woe unto then that call evil good and good evil" (5:20).  This is analogous to the moral equivalence prevalent in democracies. 
5.  This egalitarianism destroys family values: wisdom, modesty, friendship, community spirit, and leads to moral insensibility.  Israel’s greatness is exalted by her awareness of God’s infinite wisdom, power, and graciousness.  "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is filled with His glory" (6:3).  You must try to put yourself in Isaiah’s place to understand this.  You have to love HaShem God as he loved HaShem to appreciate Isaiah's bitterness – which bitterness, however, did not destroy his vision of Israel's Redemption.  

6.  It was heart-rending to this extraordinary man to see how the hearts of Jews had grown fat, lacking moral sensitivity or even a sense of shame. "Then said I: 'HaShem, how long?' And He answered: 'Until cities be waste, without inhabitant, and houses without men ..,. (6:10).

C.  The Covenant of Death (Isaiah, 28:14-18, partly paraphrased):

Hear these words, you scorners who rule in Jerusalem:  Your covenant with Israel's enemies is but a covenant with death and an agreement with the devil [translated by the Targum as a "covenant with terrorists"].  You believe that this covenant will spare you from an overflowing scourge.  But you have only made lies your refuge, and under falsehood have you hid yourselves.  "Therefore, saith HaShem:  Behold ... the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies ... Your covenant with death shall be annulled, and your agreement with the devil shall not stand.  When the overflowing scourge shall pass through, you shall be trodden down by it."

Rashi explains the "overflowing scourge" as on-going violence.  It were as if the Prophet and his commentator were saying:  "You believe you have nothing to worry about because you have a signed an agreement with the messenger of the devil."  The Malbim explains that the devil's messenger is always barking "hav! hav!" (meaning "give-give"); he will never be satisfied.  (After getting Gaza he will bark “hav! hav!” for Jerusalem, etc., etc.)

Notice that the wrath of the Prophet is focused not the people but on their leaders.  

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