Beauty Without and Within
Hafarat R’eh, Isaiah 54:11–55:5
by Dr. Vered Hillel, Netanya, Israel
We’ve all heard the saying “Beauty is only skin deep” adapted from the 1613 poem “A Wife” by Thomas Overbury. The saying refers to the idea that someone’s external beauty is not as important as their inner beauty, or put another way, external attractiveness has no relation to goodness, essential quality, or character. This saying, with a little twist, reminds me of the haftarah for R’eh; instead of contrasting external beauty with internal beauty this passage reveals that both are to be found in rebuilt Jerusalem.
The first section of our haftarah (Isaiah 54:1–17) describes the spectacular appearance of rebuilt Jerusalem. The walls will sparkle with gems causing them to stand out in splendor, the foundation will be made of sapphire and the gates from precious stones, and the streets will be paved with jewels. The rebuilt city of Jerusalem will be breathtaking in its magnificence and reflecting the glory of God in its radiance. It will be a place of peace and prosperity of material or physical blessings as well as spiritual and religious ones. The latter are actually the prerequisite for the former. The outward signs of restored Jerusalem, no matter how beautiful or glorious they may be, are not in themselves the signs of Hashem’s redemption; it is the quality of life of the people living within the city that will demonstrate the presence of Hashem. The outward glory of the city is merely the manifestation of the inner glory and spiritual character of those dwelling in it.
Isaiah states that all the inhabitants will be learned of Hashem (54:13) and established by righteousness, by tzedakah. The prophet does not say that the people will be learned or educated about or by Hashem, which would imply knowledge only. Rather the verse states that the people will be learned of Hashem; in other words, they will be his disciples, which indicates that some type of relationship exists. This relationship becomes the foundation of the restored nation, enabling them to build their society on acts of tzedakah righteousness and of shalom, which help produce peace and harmony. The bold promise of physical and spiritual transformation is presented in unilateral terms. Hashem is the one who rebuilds Jerusalem and transforms his children into disciples. The section concludes with the assurance that Jerusalem will be invincible because Hashem is the protector and that he will vindicate Israel because this is what he does for his servants (54:15–17).
The second section (55:1–5) shifts to more of a bilateral relationship in which Israel is repeatedly called to come, pay attention, and listen. If they heed this calling, Hashem promises to provide the necessary physical and spiritual nourishment to all who return, and to renew the everlasting covenant, which is the enduring mercies/loyalty promised to David (55:3). He assures Israel that the Davidic promise has not been abrogated, but that the mercies of David will be perpetuated in the restored nation of Israel, as well as in the future eternal King seated on the Davidic throne, Yeshua the Messiah. Just assuredly as David was a witness about Hashem to the surrounding nations, through both his warfare and his Psalms (55:4), Israel will be a light to the nations, summoning the nations to Hashem, because the Holy One of Israel bestows honor on them.
The placement of this week’s haftarah in the broader Jewish reading cycle provides the context for this messianic promise. Earlier in the year, the two sections of haftarah R’eh (Isa 54:11–17; 55:1–5) were combined with the first 11 verses of chapter 54 to form the haftarah for Parashat Noah. That parasha and the corresponding haftarah demonstrate that the comfort and consolation of Israel promised in Isaiah are to be as enduring as the eternal promise given to Noah after the flood. Hashem’s covenant with Noah not to destroy the earth again by flood waters (Gen 9:9–17) parallels the “Covenant of Peace” into which Israel enters through Hashem’s everlasting love and mercy mentioned in Isaiah 54:10 (cf. Isa 55:3). This theme of everlasting love, mercy, and peace carries into the haftarah for R’eh.
The two sections of this week’s haftarah record promises of physical and spiritual restoration to Israel. We have seen partial fulfillment of both, the coming of Messiah Yeshua long ago and the modern reestablishment of the State of Israel. Yet we still await their complete realization. Though these promises are spoken to Israel, the external and internal beauty of rebuilt Jerusalem provides a timeless principle that can be applied to individuals as well as to groups—outward beauty is a reflection inner character. The Bible directly addresses this principle in Proverbs 27:19, “Just as water reflects one’s face, so one’s heart reflects the person”, and Psalm 50:2, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.”
Most often, however, we are admonished to focus on inner beauty and character, rather than outward appearances (as in 1 Samuel 16:7, Ephesians 1:18, or 1 Peter 3:3–4). Inner beauty requires action on our part. Like Israel, we too must heed Hashem’s calling to come and build our relationship with him as his disciples through the promised eternal King and Messiah, Yeshua, who sits on the throne of David. We are called to acts of tzedakah and shalom and to walk in Hashem’s grace, love, mercy and peace. Daily we have to choose between blessings or curses (Parashat R’eh, Deut 11:26), between building our inner character or letting it atrophy. There are many ways to build our inner spiritual and human character. One way is the daily renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2) by thinking and dwelling on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise” (Phil 4:8).
May our outward appearance be the manifestation of our inner beauty and spiritual character!