It is important to note that chronologically the book of Isaiah should have begun here, with chapter 6. The five chapters that precede this were mostly concerning the destruction of “Judah and Jerusalem,”1 because at that time the state of Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrians. This came long after the reign of Uzziah, by whose reign the beginning of chapter 6 is dated. This is one of the places that follow the famous rule that “there is no chronological order in the Torah.”2

The correlation between the Parshah and the haftarah is the vision of the heavenly spheres that open the narrative in the latter. At the time of the giving of the Torah, “the heavens opened” and the Jewish people saw all that the prophets would later describe in mystical terms. In a similar vein, the haftarah for the first day of Shavuot (the date of the giving of the Torah) is taken from the first chapter of Ezekiel, who describes his vision known as the Merkavah (Divine “chariot”). These are portions of Tanach that enter the realm of the esoteric and “heavenly” part of of the Torah, known in Jewish vernacular as Kabbalah. All the physical terms therein must be divested of their simple meaning, as they describe something that is only analogous to the physical description.

After witnessing the Divine service of the heavenly angels, a seraph angel brings a “coal” to Isaiah’s lips and atones for his sin (see below). The voice of G‑d is heard and, as if speaking to the angels, He wonders who might go as a messenger to His people below who have gone astray. Isaiah answers the call, this while fully realizing the consequences of such a position.

G‑d tells Isaiah of how the people’s heart had grown “fat,” their ears “heavy” and their eyes “sealed.” If only they were more sensitive, they would return to G‑d and not have to endure the troubles looming on the horizon. Unfortunately, it would not be until destruction came that the people would awaken. Still, then, it would be likened to a “terebinth and an oak” in the fall: even though they lose their leaves and beauty, there is still vitality in the trunk. By the same token, although the Jewish people would lose tremendously, they would nevertheless endure forever.

Unclean lips

As Isaiah sees and hears the awesome heavenly scene, he expresses a deep feeling of inadequacy: “Woe is to me, for I shall die, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah felt he was “unclean” in comparison to the angels above. Comparing his speech with the utterances he had witnessed, his lips were “unclean.”

Isaiah also invoked his environment in this feeling: “And I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” This may have been true, maybe more true than the “uncleanliness” of Isaiah himself, but G‑d nevertheless took issue with this latter part of the statement.

G‑d said to Isaiah: “For that which you said, ‘I am a man of unclean lips’—this is forgiven to you, for you are in charge over yourself. But are you in charge over My children, that you say ‘and I dwell among a people of unclean lips’?!”3

The next verse indeed records how an angel flew down with a “coal” from the heavenly altar and touched Isaiah on the lips. The coal that burned Isaiah served as an atonement for his sin of speaking against his fellow Jews.

The Midrash states:4 “It is from here that we see that one who is appointed to a position of authority over Israel must be cautious with them.” Aside from the case of Isaiah, the Midrash brings two other instances where one of our greats was reproved for speaking out of line about the Jewish people. The first was Moses. As the Torah recounts, he stood at the rock and, before striking it, proclaimed, “Listen now, you rebels.”5 The result was that Moses forfeited entry to the Promised Land.

The other occasion mentioned was that of Elijah. Elijah was being pursued by Jezebel, the wicked wife of the Jewish king Ahab. G‑d came to him as he was fleeing and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” In his anguish, Elijah responded, “I have been zealous for G‑d, the L‑rd of Hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant.” A few verses later he was instructed to anoint Elisha as a prophet after him, in effect letting him know that his days in this world were numbered.

Returning to Isaiah, the Midrash notes that the verses later allude to the fact that Isaiah made a complete turnaround. He actually prided himself on delivering more prophecies of comfort than any other one of the prophets. Not only that, but his comforting words often took on a double expression, in emphasis of their power and depth.6

The “death” of Uzziah

The haftarah begins with a reference to the death of King Uzziah. The commentaries make it clear that this is not speaking of his actual death, but of an experience that was likened to it.

In the beginning, both Uzziah himself and his kingdom were a success story. Uzziah was a great, even saintly, individual. He led a righteous lifestyle and, according to some, even attained a level of prophecy. The verse7 attests that “when he sought G‑d, the L‑rd caused him to prosper.” He led a number of successful military campaigns, built fortifications around Jerusalem and made many agricultural improvements. He reorganized and armed the army of Judah in a most sophisticated and modern manner. As a result, his kingdom flourished, and the surrounding nations were in awe of him.

Unfortunately, however, Uzziah’s success got to his head. In his arrogance he thought it to be proper that he, as king, should serve “the King of kings” in the Temple. The privilege of serving in the Temple was given exclusively to the the kohanim, the descendants of Aaron the high priest, as prescribed in the Torah. An obvious precedent to this kind of aspiration was the story of Korach and his followers in the days of Moses, where they were not satisfied with the prominent positions they already had, but sought to attain the hallowed position of the priesthood as well. In an uncanny similarity to the Korach story, Uziyahu marched into the Temple and began preparing to offer ketoret (incense) before G‑d. This was the very service that had caused the deaths of Korach and his cohorts centuries earlier.

As Uzziah entered the Temple, he was followed by Azariah, the high priest, and eighty of the most prominent kohanim. “They stood beside Uzziah the king and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the L‑rd, but for the priests, sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn [incense]. Leave the Sanctuary, for you have trespassed, and there will not be glory for you from the L‑rd G‑d.’”8 Uzziah became furious. He lifted the firepan in his hand to hit the kohen who had dared to rebuke the king. At that very moment tzaraat, the well-known biblical skin condition, erupted on Uzziah’s forehead. He was rushed out of the Temple, as a metzora (one stricken with tzaraat) was forbidden to be in the precincts of the Temple Mount, or indeed anywhere in Jerusalem. Uzziah never returned to the Temple or to his throne. In shame, he left his position and spent the rest of his days away from public life.

The torah likens a metzora to a dead person. We find this in the episode when Miriam, Moses’ sister, was stricken with tzaraat, and Aaron pleaded with Moses, “Let her not be like a corpse!”9 Rashi there explains that the gravity of the tum’ah (halachic impurity) of a metzora is similar to that of a corpse: if either of them enters or is brought into a building, everything under the same roof is rendered tamei (impure).

When the verse speaks of the “death” of Uzziah, then, it is referring to this incident.