Yeshayahu ben Amotz (~700 BCE) was the court prophet in the Kingdom of Yehudah during the reigns of Uziahu, Yotam, Ahaz, and Hezkiyahu. The destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by Sanheriv took place during his lifetime; the destruction of Yehudah and Yerushalaim would happen about 150 years after his death. Part of his task as the prophet to the kings was to give perspective to current events: he warned Ahaz against undue panic in the face of the alliance of Israel and Aram (Haftarah of Yitro); conversely, he warned Hizkiyahu against undue complacency in the face of Ashur. He also addressed himself to the behavior and attitudes of the Jewish People of his time – warning against overemphasis on external forms of piety, against miscarriage of justice and abuse of power (Haftarah of Shabbat Chazon).
But what he is most known for, the source of numerous Haftarot, is “Pirkei Nechama” (Chapters of Comfort), the 20-odd chapters at the end of the Book of Yeshayahu. In them, the tone and the audience changes radically. He no longer relates to current events in the Kingdom of Yehudah, nor prepares his contemporaries for upcoming political or social challenges. Instead, Yeshayahu addresses a Jerusalem that is bereft, a Jewish People in crisis, and he gives hope and comfort. His vision was of a future of justice and peace, of universal knowledge of G-d, of an Israel that is respected and honored for our moral and ethical contributions. This vision has sustained countless generations of Jews.
In order to be truly healing, to give real hope, words of comfort must address specific problems, real fears, anxieties, and dilemmas. Yeshayhu’s words of comfort are not platitudes, nor generalities; part of our task in understanding them will be figuring out which specific wounds they are attempting to heal.
Yeshayahu is the Shakespeare of the Tanach. His language and his imagery are beautiful, but archaic. His references may have been evocative in his generation, but are obscure to ours. Yet, if one puts in the effort to decipher and understand, one is richly rewarded.
Unlike Shakespeare, Yeshayahu’s message does not come from a human mind, but from the Divine. It is prophecy, and it speaks not only of the experience of his generation, but of ours as well. The prophecies of comfort in particular were directed to all the centuries of Jewish history, including, and especially, our own. When our great-grandparents read, “Zion, expand your tents, to the right and to the left you will burst out”, it was a dream, a vision. To us, sitting in traffic on the road to Jerusalem, overlooking the crowded hills of Mevaseret and Ramot, it is reality.
May we live to see every word of Yeshayahu’s vision of our future come to pass, speedily and in our days.
Second Isaiah – the Controversy
The shift in Yeshayahu’s tone between the first and second part of the book is quite drastic. Whereas in the first part, he addressed himself to specific issues and current events, in the second, he shows no interest in them whatsoever. It is almost as if a different person were writing. There is also the problem of a particular verse (45:5), where the king Cyrus is mentioned by name, referring to events that had not yet happened in Yeshayahu’s lifetime. This has led certain academics to decide that there was, simply, a different prophet, a later one, who emulated Yeshayahu’s style, and his prophecies were placed into the same scroll.
This theory has always reminded me of the famous ‘schoolboy blunder’, “The Iliad was not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name.”
What difference does it make to me if the brilliant, touching, inspiring words that I’m reading were written by Yeshayahu, or by another prophet, just like Yeshayahu, that I identify with Yeshayahu?
But aside from that, the following is a theory that R’ Yaakov Meidan presented at the Y’mei Iyun b’Tanach at Michlelet Herzog, in 2012, that I find quite compelling.
Yeshayahu is listed (Yeshayahu 1:1) as having prophesied during the reign of Uziahu, Yotam, Ahaz, and Hezkiyahu. He outlived Hezkiyahu, yet the next king, Menashe, is not mentioned in this list. Menashe instituted a radical religious / cultural reform, against the Torah, against serving Hashem, toward assimilation into local cultures and religions – including sacrificing children to Molech. His reign was tyrannical, and lasted for 55 years. It was the point of no return of the Kingdom of Yehudah; even though later kings attempted to restore the Torah and turn to Hashem, their efforts were ineffective in overcoming Menashe’s lasting influence.
Yeshayahu may still have been alive, but he was not the court prophet of Menashe. Quite the opposite: in order to complete the overthrow of his father’s regime, Menashe would have needed to eliminate his mentor, the symbol of the service of Hashem. From the moment Menashe ascended the throne, Yeshayahu’s life was in danger. Indeed, according to the Talmud (Yevamot 49b), Menashe ultimately executed Yeshayahu.
If the “Chapters of Comfort” were written while Yeshayahu was in hiding from Menashe, it would explain their change in tone. Current events no longer mattered, the perspective that Yeshayahu represented was neither asked for nor wanted. The near future no longer mattered; the destruction of Yerushalaim was inevitable. Persecution and humiliation, and hope for the very distant future – those were the themes of the prophecy that Yeshayahu received and transmitted to us from the twilight of his life.
Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל