Monday, August 11, 2014

Isaiah and the Idea of Messianic Hope- Thoughts after Tisha B Av

Isaiah and the Idea of Messianic Hope- Thoughts after Tisha B Av

            If you were to ask me to list who were the people who made the greatest impact on human thought, you might expect to hear the traditional triad of Marx, Freud, and Einstein.
            However I wish the privilege of changing that list and mentioning instead, two figures who never received the due credit for affecting the way we perceive the future and ourselves, namely Yeshayahu ben Amotz and Yehezkiel ben Buzi, or, as they are known in English, Isaiah and Ezekiel.
            From Isaiah, modern civilization derived its idea of a messianic redemption, of a vision of a better world in the future, far greater than anything the present offers.
From Ezekiel, the world received the concept of the individual, of personal responsibility, of the ability to choose.
            Now, I will propose a third question: “Who made the profoundest impact on the Jewish personality?"
            To which I will answer, Yirmiyahu ben Hilkiyah, Jeremiah, who taught us how to muster our moral courage and survive the first great  disaster of Jewish history.
            These three names are cardinal in the Bible as the three great literary prophets whose works have been extensively preserved for us. Two weeks ago, as we entered the period of the three weeks of mourning, from the Seventeeth of Tammuz till Tisha B Av and the beginning of heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas, I spoke of Jeremiah. At another point, I will speak of the message of Ezekiel.
            For this Shabbat, I will focus on Isaiah. Last week, the Haftarah was the opening chapter of Isaiah, which spoke of the impending doom facing the people of Judea. It was chanted to the melody of Aicha, Lamentations, the reading of Tisha B’Av. This Shabbat, we read again from Isaiah, this time from Chapter 40: Nahamu, Nahamu Ami—Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. The same book of doom is the book of hope and deliverance.
            We here felt in our hearts the fear of the people of Israel in their time of struggle in the last several weeks; we felt an extended mood of Tisha B Av over us. We also watched as Jews in Europe were attacked. They were attacked  by Moslems in Europe, but we could understand that Moslems  would  with fellow Moslems. They were attacked  not by neo-Nazis, and this too  we could understand because they were being  true to their miserable roots. But we were shocked and pained by the attacks by the enlightened and supposedly tolerant Left, the Greens, the Socialists, the left-over Communists, who were only too eager to blame the Jews. We felt shock here too, when entertainers and celebrities were only too eager to jump on the band-wagon to condemn first, ask questions later. We felt shock when UN, European and even US officials rushed to condemn Israeli bombs on schools even before the evidence came in if the bombs were indeed Israeli or Hamas. We were let down by news correspondents who only after they left Gaza had the courage to announce that they cooperated with Hamas by refusing to show scenes of rockets firing from schools and hospitals.  We were even more stunned to see that the most powerful support came from Israel’s Arab neighbors, Egypt and Saudi Arabia!
             Now, there is a cease-fire with  the hopes of a working solution to the threat of the Hamas gangs who rule by terror in what was the historic Land  of the Philistines, Gaza.
             ( PS. The word  Palestine, is taken from Philistia, the same Gaza Strip invaded by foreign Mediterranean Sea Peoples, not indigenous to the region,  around the same time as the Exodus. The Roman Empire imposed the term “Palestine” on the former Kingdom of Judea in a willful measure to erase any identity of the ethnic Jews in what is today Israel.)
            After Tisha B Av, comes then, the hope. Hence, the reading from Isaiah , Nahamu : Comfot ye, Comfort ye, is so important. We all so desperately need that message.
            Where is the comfort in Isaiah?
            It is in proposing the possibility of a new social order on earth the likes of which had never been imagined before. All of the religious and political movements of the Western world, would be driven by that vision .This phenomenon of modern society, of trying to achieve the end of history and the perfection of human society, is the ultimate outcome of the teachings of Isaiah, the preaching of a Messianic era.
            Who was he?
            To be fully fair, today, it is commonly assumed that he was at least two, if not three people. The Isaiah of “Nahamu Nahamu”, Comfort Ye, Comfort ye” that we read today, preached   two centuries after the Isaiah wrote Chapter 1. This Second Isaiah is preaching, challenging and encouraging the Jews who have now been brought back to the Land of Israel before the destruction of the Temple. The first Isaiah, of whom I will speak, is preaching and warning sometime in the 8th century before the common era as the northern  Kingdom, Israel, is falling, long before the southern kingdom, Judea, and the Temple fall.
      Isaiah was a court prophet in Jerusalem, continually and regularly in contact with the king. Perhaps he was of royal blood, and possibly even the grandson of a king of Judea. Certainly, he had ready access to all the nobility, spoke to them personally, and was the advisor to King Hezekiah.
     As a result of his background, Isaiah, more than any other prophet spoke in monarchial tones, envisioning God as enthroned King. It was out of this milieu that his vision of the ideal future king grew.
            Isaiah was not the first prophet to make mention of a redemption or an end of days.
         Amos referred to the "Day of the Lord" as a common folk belief in ultimate national triumph. In the words of Amos, however, it was to be a day of ultimate reckoning.
            Some of Isaiah’s words also appear in the preaching of Micah, a contemporary.
            Isaiah, however, was the first to give this concept its full expression
            (Chapter 11) A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
. . .
The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[
a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. 
            It is this vision, that one day, a descendant of King David, the ideal King of the past, would once again sit on the throne in Jerusalem, bring back all the lost and scattered tribes of Israel, and usher in a universal era of peace for Jews and for all nations around. An ancient tradition even stated that the Messiah would be born on Tisha B’Av—the redemption would come out of the depths of sorrow.
               The utterance of this statement marks a turning point in the history of Jews and of mankind.
            From this moment on, we learned to move from the past and look to the future.
   No longer was the golden age in the past, and the future bleak. The time to come held out hope and promise of an ideal soon to be attained.
            Hope is one of the most powerful of drugs. It can keep us alive. It can also drive us with     impatience. No longer could one sit patiently, knowing that there was no choice; no longer would one just fold awaiting disaster.
             Thus, Jews, Christians and Moslems have for the past two thousand years and more been looking for the Messiah to come; for Christians and Moslems ,it is a second time around, for us, the first time. ( The Second Coming of Jesus is significant in Christian belief and the return of Isa is an essential step in the final triumph of Islam in the end of days).
            So, we, Jews wait, in anticipation. We marked off the calendars. In all generations, we set dates for the redemption. Speculation on the nature of the end of days was rampant.
       Havlei Mashiach, it was called. The world is going through birth pangs to-give forth a Messiah
            What would it be like?
            The youth would revolt against their elders, insult them, make them stand up while they sit. The generation would be dog-faced and. arrogant. Places of study would become places of ill repute.  Sound just like today, doesn't it.  Every generation felt that it was the last, that it was experiencing the birth pangs of the Messiah.
            Would- be-Messiahs arose in every generation.
            Bar Kochba led to the death of half a million Jews at the hands of the
            Aboulafia was jailed. when he tried to convert the Pope.
            Shabbtai Zvi ,became a Moslem and dragged many  of his followers into Islam with him.
            Jacob Frank, the most bizarre of all said that all Jews must be sinners before the Messiah will come.
            But even as the idea of an ideal “ Once and future king” created so many crack pots and delusionists, it served to keep the Jewish people alive. Even in modern times, as Jews abandoned traditional belief, we stuck to the Messianic ideal and translated it into aspirations for  all the new movements of the last two centuries.
            Liberalism and Rationalism, then the Nationalisms of the lands of our exile, then Socialism, and Communism were new Messianic movements for Jews to latch on to. In many ways, Zionism and the birth of Israel has served as the new manifestation for us of the ancient Messiah ideal, but we know to take it realistically as a project, not as a mindless Utopia..
            It powered European Civilization as well. It was transformed into the idea of Utopia, into the idea of Progress, into the ideas of the American and French. Revolutions which set in motion the events of our times, both for good and for bad. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, It was the best of ideas and the worst of ideas.
      There is one great caveat that the Rabbis brought to the discussion of the Messianic era or King: Ain Dohin et Ha Ketz-Don't hasten the end. Don't speed things up by force. The Messiah cannot be created by “ Reigns of terror” or by the fanatical mobs. It will come, of its own, in God’s time, as long as it takes,”af alpi she-yitmameha”, even as long as he may delay.
            We do our part, we build and repair the world, Tikun olam, restoring the world, one stone and one brick at a time, encouraged and buoyed by a faith that there is a ultimate redemption.
            We go back to Isaiah. In the first chapter, he warned of impending doom for the wayward of Israel. But already in the second chapter he looked to the future:         

                 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
. . .The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
 and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

That is the Messianic ideal we are still hoping and praying for, speedily, in our day.
            It is therefore appropriate for us, that the next week on the Jewish calendar, is Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av, the happiest day of ancient Jerusalem, when young men and women would find their matches.  We move on the calendar, from mourning to celebrating. So may it always be. Amen.


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