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Light from the Sidra

Ki Tetze (‘When you go out…’). 17th September 2016. 14th Elul 5776

Torah: Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9. Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12–52:12

It’s complicated

Hollywood romantic comedies tend to follow a standard boy-meets-girl scenario, followed by a series of complex but amusing twists and turns, at the end of which the young couple live together happily and, no doubt, hilariously ever after. A few years ago, however, It’s Complicated added a new twist to the standard rom-com plot. It featured a middle-aged divorced couple almost getting together again following an unexpected one-night stand. Although many people found the movie very funny, according to the Parasha, God finds that kind of scenario ‘an abomination’.

If man marries a woman and lives with her, and it will be that she will not find favour in his eyes, for he found in her a matter of immorality, and he wrote her a bill of divorce and presented it into her hand, and sent her from his house, and she left his house and went and married another man, and the latter man hated her and wrote her a bill of divorce and presented it into her hand and sent her from his house, or the latter man who married her to himself die—her first husband who divorced her shall not again take her to be his wife again, after she had been defiled for it is an abomination before HASHEM. (Deut. 24:1-4)

You couldn’t get clearer than that and yet, in the Haftarah, God despises his bride and sends her away only to take her back later:

For like a wife who had been forsaken and melancholy has HASHEM called you, and like a wife of one’s youth who had become despised, said your God. For but a brief moment have I forsaken you, and with abundant mercy will I gather you in. With a slight wrath have I concealed my countenance from you for a moment, but with eternal kindness shall I show you mercy, said your Redeemer, HASHEM. (Isa. 54:6-8)

HASHEM comforts his bride Israel with the news that although he sent her away (which a man does when he divorces his wife) into exile, he had not cast her away forever or divorced her. Although men in Israel were forbidden to take back the wives they sent away, HASHEM would take his bride back. Unlike a human ketuvah, his covenant with Israel was written on stone and couldn’t be torn up. Even though Moses broke the stone ketuvah after Israel committed spiritual adultery with a golden calf in Exodus 32, HASHEM inscribed his commandments on a second set of tablets (Ex. 34:1-4), declaring to Moses that he was ‘Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generation, Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful Sin, and Error….’ (Ex. 34:6,7).

Now this is where things become complicated. In Isaiah 54, HASHEM declares himself to be a husband who will take back the wife he despised. HASHEM then changes the imagery and portrays Israel as a barren woman whose husband has died and he, as her Go’el, her Redeemer, will raise up so many children for her that she will have to enlarge her tent.

In ancient Israel, the Redeemer was usually the firstborn in the family. On his shoulders fell the responsibility for avenging family blood. When a member of the family was murdered it was the Redeemer’s duty to exact blood vengeance on the guilty party.

The Redeemer also had a duty to fulfil the law of the levirate and to act as the protector of widows in the family. If a woman was widowed and childless, it was the responsibility of the nearest kinsman to take her as his wife and raise up a family on behalf of his deceased brother and in Isaiah 54, HASHEM promises to save Jerusalem from her widowhood and to raise up children for her.

Jerusalem is not only a rejected wife whose angry husband takes her back again in love but also a widow redeemed by HASHEM. Not only is God going to give his marriage to Israel a second chance, he is also going to take Zion as a childless widow and give her children. But how is it possible to reconcile the two sets of imagery? How could Jerusalem become a widow? How could her divine Husband die? Call it a metaphor if you like but metaphors mean something. The answer is to be found in the prophecies regarding the Righteous Servant who is sent to restore the tribes of Jacob to HASHEM:

And now HASHEM, Who formed me from the belly to be a servant to Him, said [I should] return Jacob to Him, so that Israel would be gathered; so I was honoured in God’s eyes and my God was my strength. He said: It is insufficient that you should be a servant to Me [only] to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the ruins of Israel; I will also make you a light for the nations… (Isa. 49:5,6)

When God brings Israel back to himself through his servant, it will result in God’s salvation reaching the ends of the earth. The servant in the passage is the righteous servant of chapter 53 who, like the goat for Azazel on Yom Kippur, bore the sins of Israel. His sufferings at the hand of HASHEM as an ‘offering for guilt (v. 10) set the context for the redemption of widowed Israel in chapter 54.

The righteous servant of chapter 53 is the Messiah, who is called ‘Immanuel’ (God With Us) in 7:14, and ‘Mighty God’ in 9:6. Israel’s Husband, the Mighty God, was going to be among his people as a Righteous Servant and would suffer and die for their sins. Having done that, he would rise from the dead and espouse them to himself in a way that would result in the salvation of the nations.

Saul of Tarsus, one of twelve ambassadors of Jesus who were set apart to testify to Israel that Jesus was the Messiah, the Righteous Servant of the book of Isaiah, quotes extensively from the book of Isaiah to explain his mission to proclaim God’s salvation to the Gentiles. His eleven fellow apostles preached Jesus as the Redeemer of Israel almost exclusively to the Jews while Saul proclaimed him not only as Israel’s Redeemer but also the Saviour of the world.

Today, 2,000 years on, there are more Jews than ever who can testify to having been restored to their divine Husband, while the number of Gentiles who have experienced salvation from their sins through Jesus continues to grow by the day. There is not one way to God for Jews and another for Gentiles. HASHEM is the God of both Israel and the nations. All that is required of those who hear the message is that they repent, believe and be saved.

 

 


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