What Are We Waiting For?
Fourth Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 51:12–52:12
Michael Hillel, Netanya, Israel
When we pick up a book and glance through it to determine whether we would like to spend the time reading it, we may look over the table of contents as well as the chapter headings or introductions. However, it is the text itself that we read and delve into to truly understand the heart of the book and the goal of the author(s). Therefore, it is worthy to note that the chapters and verses of Scripture are not in the original texts but are a much later addition. A cursory online search shows an agreement that the current chapter and verse designations in the Christian translations of the Bible originated with Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury around 1227, and were first used in the Wycliffe English Bible in 1382. The Tanakh has a few deviations from this pattern, possibly due to the work of Rabbi Nathan in 1448.
Why this history lesson, you might ask. Often when we read the Scriptures, we subconsciously accept the stop-and-go pattern of the chapter breaks, verses, and even sub-headings. While these are useful tools in locating and remembering sections of Scripture, they were not part of the original inspired work of the Ruach set down by men of old.
With this in mind, let’s turn to the fourth of the Haftarot of Consolation, which follow the remembrances of Tisha b’Av and culminate the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. This week’s reading, Isaiah 51:12 through 52:12, continues the unbroken flow of Hashem’s encouragement through the prophet Isaiah that began four weeks ago with Shabbat Nachamu, (Isaiah 40:1–26). This week’s passage opens with the repeated emphasis by the Lord that it is he that comforts Israel. “I, I am the One who comforts you. Who are you that you should fear man?” (Isa 51:12).
Rav Shaul’s words of comfort to the believers in Rome may well have been inspired by Isaiah’s words: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31b).
The exterior circumstances should not be our main focus, no matter how difficult, or whether they be problems of our own making or the simple reality of living in world groaning for the realization of tikkun olam. Our main focus should be on him who provides the comfort, as the “author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2), especially as he promised through the prophet Jeremiah: “‘For I know the plans that I have in mind for you,’ declares Adonai, ‘plans for shalom and not calamity—to give you a future and a hope’” (Jer 29:11).
Later in the Haftarah, Israel, and we as well, are encouraged, possibly even commanded, to awaken to this necessity, that of focusing on the Lord and not the circumstances. First the Lord says, “Awake, awake! Stand up, Jerusalem! From Adonai’s hand you have drunk the cup of His fury, the chalice of reeling that you have drained to the dregs” (Isa 51:17).
Yes, it was Israel’s fault that the discipline had come, and she was chastised like an errant child. By not choosing life (Deut 30:19), Israel received the promised consequence. But the consequence was not the final state of things. Discipline is performed not to bring death and destruction, but to bring change, growth, and redemption. Isaiah’s encouragement continues,
Awake, awake! Clothe yourself in your strength, Zion! Clothe yourself in beautiful garments, Jerusalem, the holy city, for the uncircumcised and the unclean will never invade you again. (Isa 52:1)
It is important to realize that along with the comforting words of Hashem, Israel is encouraged, maybe even commanded, to wake up, to stand up, and even to strengthen themselves. The Lord comforts and restores after discipline but it is Israel’s responsibility to get up, to stop wallowing in the mud of depression and self-pity, and to walk in the comfort and provision of her Lord. Remember, the Lord delivered Israel from Egyptian oppression and slavery, but they had to get up and walk out on their own. Had they sat in their homes instead of following Moshe out, who knows how the story would have ended? Rav Shaul exhorted the believers at Philippi to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For the One working in you is God—both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13). It would appear that both in the Tanakh and in the Apostolic Writings, we have a responsibility to work with Hashem for our betterment, for tikkun olam; we are not expected or even allowed just to sit on our tuchuses waiting for things to happen.
The 16th century kabbalist, Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, possibly summarized this Haftarah in his poem, Lecha Dodi, which is sung on Friday evening welcoming the entrance of the Shabbat.
Wake up, wake up,
Your light has come, rise and shine.
Awaken, awaken; sing a melody,
The glory of God to be revealed upon thee.
As we read the Haftarot of Consolation, can there be any greater consolation than being encouraged to enter into the rest provided by our Lord? What are we waiting for?