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The Prophet Isaiah

The Prophet Isaiah

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Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat before Tisha B'Av, and Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat after Tisha B'Av, both derive their names from the Book of Isaiah. Chazon ("Vision") is the first word of the first chapter of this book, and Nachamu ("Comfort ye") is the first word of the fortieth chapter of the same book. These two chapters form the Haphtorahs are said on Sabbaths respectively. From the Book of Isaiah come also the "Seven Haphtorahs of Consolation" which we read in the synagogue from Shabbat Nachamu right up to Rosh Hashanah.

Let us, therefore, become acquainted with this great prophet of our people.

Isaiah, the son of Amoz, was a member of the royal family. He made his first public appearance as the Divinely inspired prophet in the year of Uzziah's affliction with leprosy. That was in the year 3142 after Creation. From that time, and for a period of 86 years, Isaiah's prophetic voice was heard in the Kingdom of Judah, during the reign of the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Isaiah must have lived to a very ripe old age.

Very important events took place during the lifetime of Isaiah, both in the history of our people, as well as in the history of the world at large. Isaiah saw the rise of a new world empire, Assyria, whose king Shalmaneser conquered the Northern Kingdom, and led the Ten Tribes into exile. Judea alone remained, and it was the last bulwark of the true faith in One G-d. Yet here, too, the evil practices of the heathen neighbors began to make inroads, and the Holy City of Jerusalem was often desecrated by idolatry, injustice and corruption. Isaiah brought to the king and people the message of the holiness of G-d, at a time when idolatry seemed to be taking root in the land, and he preached justice and charity at a time when the morals of the people reached a new low.

Of his Divine call, Isaiah tells as follows (in chapter 6):

"In the year of King Uzziah's death (meaning, when he was stricken with leprosy and was isolated), I saw G-d sitting upon a high and exalted throne, and His train (glory) filled the sanctuary. Seraphim (fiery angels) were standing around Him. Each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two did he fly. And one call unto the other, and said: 'Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.'

"And the posts of the threshold shook at the voices of those that called aloud, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said, 'Woe is me because a man of unclean lips am I, and in the midst of people of unclean lips do I dwell; for the King, the Lord of Hosts, have my eyes seen.'

"Then flew one of the Seraphim to me, and in his hand was a coal he had taken from the altar with the tongs. And he laid it upon my mouth and said, 'Lo, this has touched thy lips, and thine iniquity is departed and thy sin is forgiven!'

"And I heard the voice of G-d saying, 'Whom shall I send and who will go for us?' And I said, 'Here am I; send me.' And He replied, 'Go, say unto this people: Ye hear indeed, but understand not; ye see indeed, but know not. Made obstinate is the heart of this people; their ears are heavy and their eyes shut; or else their eyes would see, their ears would hear, and their hearts would understand, in order that they repent and be healed.'"

Isaiah's mission was, first of all, to admonish the people and urge them to repent and return to G-d. He tells them that G-d is their father, and they are His children. He calls upon the rebellious children to return to their loving father. Thus, in the very first chapter (which, as mentioned, we read on Shabbat Chazon) his voice thunders:

"Hear, O Heavens, and give ear O, Earth, for G-d hath spoken. 'Children have I nourished and brought up, but they have rebelled against Me. The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib, but Israel does not know, My people does not consider...'"

Thus he calls on heaven and earth to bear witness that Israel has proved itself ungrateful and disobedient. He does not hesitate to blame the leaders, whom he calls "Rulers of Sodom," for the low moral state of the people. He sternly rebukes the hypocritical worshippers who offer sacrifices to G-d, but who do not refrain from sin, thinking that they can "bribe" G-d, as the idol-worshippers do. Thus Isaiah continues:

"Hear the word of G-d, you rulers of Sodom; give ear to the Torah of our G-d, you people of Gomorrah: 'To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me,' says G-d; 'I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fatted beasts; the blood of the bullocks, of sheep, and of he-goats I do not desire! When you come to appear in My presence who has required this of you, that you trample My courts? Do not continue to bring me gifts of deceit... the New Moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot bear misdeed with solemn gathering... Therefore, when you spread forth your hands I will withdraw my eyes from you; when you speak ever so many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your deeds from before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek for justice; relieve the oppressed; do justice to the orphan; plead for the widow.

The prophet then challenges the people to reason. He tells them that G-d is ready to forgive them if they will return to Him, and he warns them that their disobedience will lead only to destruction.

‑ 'Come now and let us reason together,' says G-d. 'Though your sins should be (red as) scarlet, they shall become white as snow; though they should be red like crimson, they shall become (white) like wool. If you be willing and obey, the best of the land you shall eat; but if you refuse and rebel, by the sword you shall be devoured; for the mouth of G-d has spoken!"'

...Isaiah tells the people that if the sinners will not repent of their own accord, G-d will purify the nation through suffering. A remnant, chastised and purified, will survive the judgment which would befall Israel, and it will become the seed of a holy and eternal nation. He describes this purification in the way precious metals are purified by fire, with lye, until the dross is removed:

"Therefore, says G-d, the G-d of Hosts, the Mighty One of Israel... I will turn My hand upon you, and purge, as with lye, your dross, and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as of yore, and your counsellors as at the beginning. Thereafter you shall be called the City of Righteousness, the Town that is Faithful. Zion shall be redeemed through justice, and they that return to G-d, through righteousness."

Isaiah's prophecies on the future glory of Israel are as eloquent as they are inspiring:

"Comfort ye, comfort ye My people" says your G-d. Speak unto the heart of Jerusalem and proclaim unto her, that her time of punishment is completed, that her guilt is paid off..."

Israel's redemption and glory will hail a new era when G-d's glory will be revealed even to eyes of flesh:

"And the glory of G-d shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see together, that the mouth of G-d hath spoken."

Especially great will be the Divine revelation on the mountains of Zion and the cities of Judah and in Jerusalem, where it will be easy to behold the glory of G-d, and so profound will be the knowledge of the people that it will be said: "Behold, here is your G-d."

G-d will be revealed in His full majesty and power, yet also in His infinite mercy, for He will gather the exiles of the Jewish people "Even as a shepherd that feedeth his flock, that gathereth the lambs in his arm, and carries them in his bosom, and gently leadeth the very young."

(To be continued)

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