Look to Abraham Your Father
Second Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 49:14–51:3
by David Friedman, Union rabbi, Jerusalem
In the Torah’s narrative, we are at a critical juncture. Moses is teaching the new generation, those who would soon enter to live in the Land of Israel, and his words are recorded in the book of Deuteronomy.
It will be important to the tribes as they make aliyah (immigration to Israel) to always remember that they are a people bound to God by covenant. Some 600 years after Moses’ death, Isaiah was sharing his message for the Kingdom of Judah and the same truth was relevant.
In Isaiah’s lifetime, there were both righteous and unrighteous kings in Judah. Yet it appears that in the end, idolatry and breaking the Torah were rife throughout the Land. Therefore, Isaiah foresees a judgment similar to what occurred to the Kingdom of Israel. He shares a message of the need to turn back to God (to do tshuvah in Hebrew) and to keep the covenant with him. Isaiah knows the people will need to remember these two crucial items in the near future.
Perhaps the biggest lie that Israel would ever believe, in all generations, is given to us for examination by Isaiah, as he considers the future of his people: Zion said: “Adonai abandoned me, and my God forgot me” (Isa 49:14, my translation).
Believing this lie would affect Israel’s ability to live as the light that God created us to be. It doesn’t matter when in history this lie would be believed, the results would be the same: a great weakening of our shining light, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora.
Isaiah was quick to counter this lie with the truth:
Would a woman forget her tiny infant, from having mercy on the child of her womb? If this were possible, I still will not forget you!… Your [city] walls are always before me (Isa 49:15, 16b, my translation).
The questions in verse 15 are certainly rhetorical, in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible. Yet they confront our people throughout the generations with a wake-up call that is encouraging.
I did not personally have to go through the Holocaust. Had I done so, I may very well have wondered, as in verse 14, if God was really faithful and loving. I have spoken with a number of persons (including Holocaust survivors) who indeed believe that if God exists, he abandoned our Jewish people during the vicious reign of Hitler. I will not judge any Holocaust survivor or victim for their thoughts on this. Yet Isaiah gives us the true perspective: God will not abandon Israel, not during the Babylonian Exile, and not during the Holocaust:
Though he walk in darkness, and have no light,
Let him trust in the name of God, and rely upon his God. (Isa 50:10b, JPS)
What a compelling picture of Israel’s future from Isaiah’s day! So many Holocaust survivors have referred to that time period as an era of darkness, when little light was to be found. And a mere hundred and twenty years after Isaiah’s lifetime, Judah would experience siege, slaughter, and darkness. Even the light that existed is described as a raging, destructive fire: “He has ravaged Jacob like flaming fire, consuming on all sides” (Lam 2:3b, JPS). There was but darkness: “Bitterly she weeps in the night” (Lamentations 1:2, JPS).
Living in Israel today, it is not always easy to comprehend what Isaiah tells us. When 200,000 rockets face your borders, and when soldiers and civilians are constantly being attacked by jihad inspired terrorists, one can question where in the world God is and why he does not intervene. When we bury our young men and women in Israel in a continual stream, when the world’s politicians daily pick on Israel with slander, and when you have to go through a terror attack yourself (my family has been through a number of them), it is too easy to think, “Where is God? Why does he leave us in such circumstances? Why doesn’t he do something decisive? Is he present at all? Has he forgotten about us?”
When we are beset with such questions Isaiah’s words offer true and real comfort, and help us reconnect with the God who is indeed there. I have found that Isaiah’s words further on in our haftarah also are 100% true:
You shall know that I am Adonai, those who trust in Me shall not be shamed. . .
I will contend with your enemies, and I will deliver your children. (Isa 49:23b, 25, JPS)
These are simple and strong promises that are ever so relevant for our people today. Isaiah’s haftarah is like an Rx for our people’s pain and the situation in which we find ourselves today, in 2018.
But Isaiah reverses this situation in our haftarah. God addresses the people of Judah, and asks them:
Why, when I came, was no one there?
Why, when I called, would no one respond? (Isa 50:2, JPS)
God had come and called out to the tribes, to the leaders, the prophets and the priests; but no one listened to him. If the people were disappointed in God, well . . . he seemed to be disappointed in their responses to his call, as well.
And then Isaiah’s words, like a set of exclamation marks, come at the very end of our haftarah section. They challenged the Kingdom of Judah then, as well as us today, to understand our situation in light of God’s actions in biblical history:
Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. He was alone when I called him, and I blessed him and made him many people. (Isa 51:1–2, my translation).
Why look to Abraham? What does this even mean? The Hebrew word used for “look to” here means to “take a look at” others, to consider them and their life.
Isaiah encourages us to consider Abraham and Sarah for a lesson we can learn about God’s faithfulness. Abraham was but one person when God singled him out for a close relationship via an eternal covenant. And God was faithful to bless him and cause his barren wife to be fruitful and have descendants. We can make a rabbinic kal ve’homer (a fortiori) argument here: if God is faithful to his promises to Abraham, will he not also be faithful to all of Abraham’s descendants? The answer is again implied, and it is a strong “yes!”
Another strongly implied truth of our haftarah is that God’s promises to Israel (and those who are grafted into Israel) are eternal. They pass down from one generation to another. This is not a new message in Isaiah’s day. But it is a crucial one, and that may be why it appears as a thread in our haftarah text. If this was not the case, there would be little hope in Isaiah’s message here. 49:16 uses the word tamid in Hebrew to express the truth that God will “always” remember Israel. For God, it means the constant, daily remembering of his promises to Israel.
Isaiah 49:17–26 specifies what this “daily remembering forever, always” would look like: it includes gathering the people of Israel and returning us, with the great aid of Gentile governments, to our homeland. (Indeed, King Cyrus of Persia did this in history, and perhaps there are modern day persons [David Lloyd George and Arthur James Balfour among them] who also can be counted as having carried out Isaiah’s words.)
They will bring your sons in their bosoms, and carry your daughters on their backs.
Kings shall tend your children, their queens shall serve you as nurses… (Isa 49:23b, JPS).
The daily remembering also includes fighting against Israel’s enemies:
I will contend with your adversaries, and I will deliver your children (Isa 49:25b, JPS).
Let us remember the lessons that Isaiah spoke out to the Kingdom of Judah: that God remembers Israel daily; that his remembering includes gathering and protecting Israel, and bringing us back to our homeland. Let us remember today that he will be present when trouble and darkness attack our lives. Finally, let us remember that we can learn about his faithfulness from the life of Abraham.