How Can the Barren One Sing?

Fifth Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 54:1–10

Rabbi Russ Resnik

We’re in the midst of the weekly passages from Isaiah known as the Haftarot of Comfort or Consolation, and this week’s installment opens with a paradox:

 “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
    break forth into singing and cry aloud,
    you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
    than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.

How can a barren woman come to rejoice? How can a desolate one have abundant children? It’s a paradox, but we’ve already seen how it works in the story of Sarah, the barren wife who finally bears a son to Abraham in her old age. It’s the iconic story of the God we serve, whose very nature is to give life when there is no life and to even raise the dead.

But Isaiah’s words have special meaning during the days in which we read them—the time of preparation for the approaching High Holy Day season. One custom during this season is to take time each day to consider our attitudes and behaviors and make amends as needed. As we do, we often discover that we’re the desolate one, barren of what we need to be pleasing to God or fruitful in his sight. We might resort to the words of the traditional prayer Avinu Malkenu: “Our Father, our King!  Be gracious to us, and answer us, for we have no good works of our own; deal with us in charity and kindness, and save us.”

As we realize our moral emptiness, we also realize that we’ll have to throw ourselves on God’s mercy—and of course that’s right where he wants us. The God that we’re talking about is the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). This is what Abraham learned on his long wait for an heir to be born of the desolate Sarah. And it’s something we can learn as well.

As a rabbi and counselor I often deal with addictions of various sorts. One of my favorite books on the subject is God of Our Understanding, by a Chabad rabbi, Shais Taub. It’s written from an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) perspective, and the first two of the Twelve Steps of AA are:

  • We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

  • Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Rabbi Taub comments, “The admission of powerlessness and unmanageability is not an aspect of recovery—it’s the very basis of it. Nothing else seems to work very well without complete and unconditional capitulation first.” Or in Avinu Malkenu terminology, when we realize that we “have no good works of our own,” we qualify for God’s work to get done in us. God isn’t impressed with our self-empowered efforts at reform and goodness, but “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa 51:17). The one with such a heart is the barren and desolate one, who ends up with a multitude of children. 

I’m trying to write this in a clear way that will make sense to you, my reader, but I have to admit that you’re unlikely to really get it until circumstances or God’s grace—or a combination of both—open your eyes to your barrenness and need for divine rescue. We do a lot in the modern world to avoid reaching this sort of eye-opener. Our consumerist, high-tech, entertainment-oriented, and addicted culture seems designed to distract us from such a realization. That’s why spiritual practices like worshipful prayer, contemplative reading, and self-examination are so important. And even as we pursue these practices, we’re still dependent on God’s faithfulness to bring us through.

In his book Addiction and Virtue, Christian scholar Kent Dunnington contrasts worship and addiction:

Addiction is seductive because it promises to address the disorder and disunity of the self without requiring that we relinquish control over our own lives. . . . Right worship, on the other hand, trains us to see that the disorder and disunity of the self are themselves a symptom of our sinful insistence on maintaining control over our own lives. . . . Worship trains us to see that the self is not something that we establish but rather something that we continually receive from God. 

So “the desolate one” refers to those who have finally given up on the need to control life and make something out of themselves. They’re devoid of any way to do that and, more important, they finally realize it. This desolate state allows God to move in, and amazingly, when he does the desolate one bears children.

I’m writing this as I sit in a gleaming lobby of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a world-class institution where my oldest brother is hospitalized, struggling with an aggressive cancer and cascading medical problems. The staff is excellent, the technologies are state-of-the-art . . . and everything still hangs on God’s timing and mercy. As family we have words to speak and decisions to make, but we can only surrender the outcome into God’s hands.

It’s a difficult lesson, of course, but one that we all need to learn and re-learn continually. We become fruitful not through self-effort and not through passivity either, but through actively turning over our lives and circumstances to the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

We can be realistic as we face our failings and shortcomings during the Days of Awe, as addicts are realistic when they admit to being powerless over the alcohol or drugs or porn or compulsive spending or whatever has bound them up. We can be realistic as my family and I need to be in facing my brother’s impossible medical situation. Such realism isn’t ultimately pessimistic because it still counts on the merciful promises of God. We can be realistic and still maintain a joyful hope, “‘For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,’ says the Lord.”

In memory of my big brother, Dennis Resnik, who passed away on the night of August 20.

The Lord gives and the Lord has taken; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Russ Resnik