Background and Overview

This part of the book of Isaiah, beginning with ch. 40, is dedicated to prophecies of hope and consolation for the Jewish people. Living at the time when the sky was beginning to gray over the Jewish people, Isaiah foresaw the exiles both of the Ten Tribes and of Judah. But seeing further than the immediate, the book of Isaiah is predominantly a book filled with strength and comfort. The Talmud actually views the entire book in this light: “Isaiah is entirely consolation.”1

As with many parts of the prophets, our haftarah speaks in quite lofty and poetic language. The commentaries differ in interpreting the specific details in the verses, but are mostly in agreement as to their general intent. In all, this segment is a conglomerate of the many recurring themes that are promulgated by our prophets.

The haftarah begins with Isaiah speaking in the name of G‑d as the creator of heaven and earth and the giver of life. (This opening verse is the obvious reason why this is read as the Haftarah for Bereishit, the account of creation.) G‑d gives ability and strength to His prophets to guide the people, which will eventually bring them redemption. Earlier prophecies of various events were all fulfilled, and G‑d will apprise his people of the events that will come their way in the future.

A day will come when honor and praise will no longer be given to false deities, only to the true G‑d. At that time, all inhabitants of the earth will recognize and praise the One who made them. So full will the world be with G‑dly consciousness that it will be as if the earth itself and the inanimate creations will be singing to their creator.

G‑d will then take revenge of those nations who did evil to the Jewish people. Until now He had painfully restrained Himself, but on that day He will “roar” in retribution. The Jews’ exiles will be ingathered, and the idolatrous nations will stand by, embarassed.

In His quest for their spiritual improvement, G‑d gives sages and prophets to His people. The Torah was also given to the people in its entire vast and magnificent scope. This to is in order to teach, give merit to, and elevate the people who are to be its guardians.

The Deaf and Blind Agent

“Who is blind but My servant, and deaf as My messenger whom I will send?” Of all the verses in the Haftarah that warrant explanation, this one seems to stand out most. Who is this blind and deaf messenger?

A number of approaches are offered by the commentaries:

Metzudat David understands this to be a continuation of the previous verse: “O deaf ones, listen; and blind ones, gaze to see!” The people had been oblivious to Torah and its commandments, as if being deaf to hearing them and blind to seeing them. But making a blanket statement about the people would be unfair. Many of them were righteous and had heeded the word of G‑d. Why were they to be included in such a statement?

It is this that Isaiah explains in the next verse. The righteous among the people were not only included in being considered “deaf and blind,” but were especially looked at as such. They were the ones who knew well and recognized the misdeeds of the generation, but had not taken a stand. They had made themselves “deaf and blind,” turning insular instead of going out and helping their brethren.

Rashi understands this verse to mean something different. A person who is blind or deaf lives a life of suffering. Whatever pain he or she had to endure on account of possible sin has already been fully realized. Such people are comparable to the most righteous of men, to whom G‑d entrusts His message to the people.

Yet another idea is suggested by Mahari Kara, an early biblical commentary. There is a Talmudic dictum which states:2 “Our rabbis taught: ‘Those who suffer insults but do not inflict them, who hear themselves reviled and do not answer back, who perform Mitzvos from love and who rejoice in chastisement, of such scripture says, ‘Those who love Him are like the sun when it goes forth in its might.’”

This is the intention behind this verse as well. It is those who make themselves “blind and deaf” to those ridiculing them who are compared to the most righteous. In particular, this is a reference to Elijah the prophet, who will be “sent” to herald Moshiach’s coming.

“G‑d desires, for the sake of its [Israel’s] righteousness, that the Torah be made great and glorious”

The closing verse of our haftarah is highly well-known, and recurs in our prayers many times. It is said each day in the morning service, and is pronounced when the Torah is lifted. It is also part of the most often quoted Mishnah of all time:

Rabbi Chananyah ben Akashya said: The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to make Israel meritorious; therefore He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance. As it is said: “G‑d desires, for the sake of its [Israel’s] righteousness, that the Torah be made great and glorious.”3

Throughout Talmudic literature, this verse is invoked as support and explanation for a number of ideas:

A. We often find that the Torah warns us against doing things that people would not do naturally. For example, the consumption of rodents or animal carcasses is so repulsive to a straightforward human being that it can be hardly understood why the Torah would need to warn against it. The reason why G‑d did this was to elevate even these things to the status of a Mitzvah. Now that this is so, a person receives reward, and most importantly is connected to G‑d Himself, by virtue of doing this seemingly natural act. G‑d did this out of His love to the Jewish people, giving them increased opportunity to fulfill mitzvot.4

B. The Talmud and its commentaries will often delve into a hypothetical case that is almost impossible to happen. Deep discussion and disputation will surround a case which may never in fact occur. In a similar vein, major discussion often surrounds an opinion that the law does not follow. This concept finds its source in this verse, “that the Torah be made great and glorious.” There is virtue and immense spiritual significance in the study of Torah even if it has no bearing on a practical matter.5

In his “Rules of the Talmud,” the Shaloh6 adds another dimension from the opposite angle. Each time we encounter a discussion where the only “justification” for it is “glorifying the Torah,” it should nevertheless still not be approached as irrelevant in practice. There will always be a practical application in some place for this discussion or law. It is only here that we “excuse” the discussion by invoking this concept, but as a whole, every part of Torah will be relevant in a practical way at some point.

C. In his Laws of Torah Study, Maimonides derives a halachic application from this verse:

“Should a teacher of children come and open a schoolroom next to the place where a colleague was teaching, so that other children will come to him or so that the children studying under his colleague shall come to him, his colleague may not lodge a protest against him, for the verse states: ‘G‑d desired, for the sake of His righteousness, to make the Torah great and glorious.’”7

Such a practice would usually be forbidden in any other profession. But Torah is not a physical commodity that diminishes with a competitor. On the contrary, intensifying competition in Torah learning will only motivate him to strengthen his own learning skills, thus yielding a gain for all parties.