Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Va'etchanan

Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11.Haftarah:Isaiah 40:1-26

Last week was Shabbat Chazon (the “Sabbath of foretelling”), the last Sabbath before Tisha B’Av. Tonight is Shabbat Nachamu (the “Sabbath of comfort”) which holds out the hope of redemption for Israel.

We have seen that Deuteronomy follows the same structure as ancient suzerain treaties, which began with a Preamble, followed by a Historical Prologue. Deuteronomy 1:1-8 forms the Preamble and 1:9-4:44 the Prologue. This week’s Parasha is part of the largest section of Deuteronomy, the list of stipulations which spell out in detail the obligations of Israel to Yahweh.

Four elements in the Torah reading link it to the Haftarah in Isaiah 40.

The first is the uniqueness of the God of Israel. In Deuteronomy 6:4 we read the Shema, the great confession that pious Jews recite twice a day and hope will be the last words on their lips when they pass from this world. Some Haredim attempt to meditate on the verse even while making love to their wives! Most of those who attach importance to the Shema imagine that they alone believe in the true unity of God but Biblical commentator John D Currid makes the point: “For the Christian, as for the Jew, this passage ought to be written in gold … For when Jesus was asked what is the greatest [mitzvah], he cited this passage as the fundamental and first tenet of Scripture” (A Study Commentary on Deuteronomy, p.161, 2006). In Isaiah 40, Yahweh the one true God, the God of Israel, is contrasted with the many idols of the goyim.

The second element the binds the passages together is the exile. The nation Isaiah addresses in chapter 40 is a future Israel in exile. Throughout the previous 39 chapters of Isaiah’s prophecy, God threatened Judah with severe judgement because of their flagrantly disregard of his mitzvot. The people continued to serve other gods and suffered the consequence: exile to Babylon. In chapter 40, Isaiah the prophet looks to the future and comforts the Jews in Babylon who are suffering for the sins of previous generations of their people. That exile is foretold in Deut 4:25-31:

 

When … ye shall have been long in the land, and shall deal corruptly, and make a graven image, even the form of any thing, and shall do that which is evil in the sight of the LORD thy God, to provoke Him; I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over the Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed. And the LORD shall scatter you among the peoples … And there ye shall serve gods, the work of men’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell (Jewish Publication Society translation).

The third element that links the Torah and Haftarah portions is redemption. Yahweh redeemed Israel from Egypt and he will redeem his people from Babylon. The exodus from Egypt established him as the one true God who was greater than the gods of Egypt, and the return to Zion from Babylon will reveal him to be the greater than the vain objects of Babylonian worship.

The fourth element is the comfort of God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel:

In thy distress, when all these things are come upon thee, in the end of days, thou wilt return to the LORD thy God, and hearken unto His voice; for the LORD thy God is a merciful God; He will not fail thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which He swore unto them (Deut 4:30,31, JPS translation ).

God will be merciful to Israel.

Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God. Bid Jerusalem take heart, and proclaim unto her, that her time of service is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins (Isaiah 40:1,2, JPS translation).

The comfort for Israel is that “her time of service is accomplished”. Isaiah looks forward to the time when Israel’s time of exile is about to come to an end. Before the exile, idolatry had appeared an attractive proposition to Israel. The gods of the nations did not require absolute obedience to a set of commandments; all they required was sacrifices and, at least in the case of the Baal of Peor (Numbers 25), the occasional orgy. And the nations had visible gods: fantastic idols you could see; not a single, invisible, insubstantial deity. How cool was that!

Yahweh exiled his people from the land and put them in service to the gods they thought were so great. But the service of the gods of Babylon was, in fact, hard labour; and, mercifully, Yahweh would bring it to an end.

But it could only be brought to an end after Israel’s guilt had been “paid off”. Who would pay off Israel’s guilt? Who could pay off Israel’s guilt? Not Israel. Later in Isaiah’s prophecy, he foresees a righteous servant of Adonai who is able and willing to pay off Israel’s guilt with his own life.

But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed. All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? for he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due. (Isaiah 53:5-8.JPS translation).

The guilt would be paid off when Israel “received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins”. At first sight Isaiah 40:2 appears to be saying that Israel has been punished twice as much as she deserved but that can’t be the meaning of the verse. Yahweh is “the Judge of all the earth” and he always does right (Genesis 18:25). The word for “double” in Isaiah 40:2 is not mishneh but kephel, a word that means to duplicate or to “fold over”. In Biblical times, when a debt was paid or cancelled, the bill was folded over or “doubled”, signifying the bill was “paid off”.

Although Israel never again engaged in open idolatry after the exile, the prophets continued to rebuke the Jewish people for their unfaithfulness to their God. Israel’s iniquities were still in need of forgiveness. Then, in the period of the second temple, a prophet called Johanan ben Zachariah appeared in the desert of Judea claiming to be the “voice crying in the wilderness”, and calling Israel to repentance in preparation for coming of their God. He was the herald of Messiah who, though his death, paid off Israel’s bill of iniquity, as foretold in Isaiah 53:5-8. In him is Israel’s greatest comfort.

That comfort was surely in mind when the apostle Paul wrote to followers of Jesus in the ancient city of Colosse:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13,14)


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