This Shabbos we read Isaiah 49:14-51:3, second of the seven Haftarot of Consolation read in the weeks after Tisha b’Av.
In last week’s haftarah, Isaiah’s words of consolation were uniquely suited to the generation living in Babylonian exile after the destruction of the First Temple. Isaiah foresaw that their exile would soon end and even provided a calendar by which the exiles could estimate when. And Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled — the Persian king Cyrus authorized the exiles’ return and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.
But Isaiah’s comforting words in the previous haftarah did not speak to the situation in which later generations found themselves after the destruction of the Second Temple.
In the first verse of this week’s haftarah, Zion sees how long the Exile has become and says in despair, “G-d has forsaken me, my L-rd has forgotten me.” Such despair was natural, given what Moses says in Eikev, this week’s parsha, where he warns the Children of Israel that they “will surely perish” if they do not obey G-d’s commandments (Deut. 8:19). Likewise, they will “be swiftly banished” if they worship idols (Deut. 11:17). Moses offers no promise of a return.
Isaiah seeks to counter this despair by saying that G-d could no more forget Zion than a mother could forget the fruit of her womb (Is. 49:15). Isaiah then reports G-d saying, “Behold, I have engraved you on [My] palms” (Is. 49:16).
The image of G-d engraving Israel on His palms brings the parsha to mind. Many times in Eikev, Moses enjoins the Children of Israel to commit their hearts to G-d. For instance, he asks them to serve G-d “with all your heart and will all your soul” (Deut. 11:13). Moses also tells them to bind the commandments “for a sign upon your arm and an ornament between your eyes” (Deut. 11:18).
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Something kept in the heart or worn on the arm may be hidden from the eye; an engraving of the palms, in contrast, is visible whenever the hands are used. G-d thus sees the engraving and will be reminded of Israel at all times. Comparing the image of Israel committing its heart to G-d with the image of G-d engraving Israel on His palms hints metaphorically that G-d’s attachment to Israel is stronger than Israel’s attachment to G-d.
But the very intensity of G-d’s love for Israel gives all the more reason to ask why the exile has lasted so long and makes it all the more urgent to ask what it will take for the exile to end. Isaiah addresses these questions.
According to Isaiah, before the end of the exile can come about Israel’s “spoilers and destroyers must depart from you” (Is. 49:17). The departure of those who caused the exile will make it possible for those who remain to repent. But the conditions are not yet right. G-d has called, but no one has answered (Is. 50:2); G-d is waiting to end the exile, but Israel is holding back the redemption by not doing its part.
When Isaiah talks about the reciprocal obligations of Israel and G-d to fulfill their respective covenantal responsibilities, he is echoing an idea that Moses had expressed in the parsha. According to Moses, if Israel obeys the commandments, G-d will bring rain in its proper time and provide grass for the cattle; the Israelites will eat and be satisfied (Deut. 11:13-15). If they do what is incumbent upon them, G-d will do what is incumbent upon Him.
At the same time that Moses assures Israel of G-d’s assistance and protection, he also asks them to remember the numerous times over the previous 40 years when G-d had removed the spoilers and destroyers (Deut. 9:13-23). Without such direct action, the goal of removing the spoilers and destroyers has become more difficult. Isaiah is calling for spiritual repentance by the spoilers and destroyers themselves. If they hurry to repent, the redemption will quickly come.
In the haftarah’s first verse, Zion had said: “G-d has forsaken me; the L-rd has forgotten me.” According to Isaiah, once Zion sees what is written in its heart, on its arm and between its eyes, G-d will be better able to see what is engraved on His palms. The Covenant between G-d and Israel works both ways.
Richard Golden is president of Congregation B’nai Avraham, the Orthodox shul in Brooklyn Heights. Excerpted from a forthcoming book.