Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the wonderful message of hope for the displaced and the unfortunate, the downtrodden and the sinner from Isaiah 55:6-56:8.
I am writing this during the Three Week period, mourning the breach made in the Jerusalem Temple on 17th Tammuz up until the destruction itself, which took place on 9th Av. This year, the Fast of Av takes place on the night of Shabbat on 6 August and the whole of Sunday 7 August. Just before the Fast of Av begins, we will have embarked on the last book of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy).
On Jewish Fast Days, the Isaiah passage that we read covers Isaiah 55:6-56:8. As it is of tremendous importance to our current world, I would like to say a few words about this passage today. The reason these Isaiah teachings span two chapters of Isaiah is that the chapter divisions were not made by Jews, but by Christians in the Middle Ages, and it is these that we follow today.
Let's just go through the Isaiah text, starting in Chapter 55:6.
'Seek the Lord when and wherever He may be found; call Him when and wherever He is close.'
The Hebrew is succinct and suggests that G-d is always there in potential, waiting for us to access Him. The Jewish G-d is absolutely not the unmoved mover of the Greeks, nor the Enlightenment's clock-maker, standing back, indifferent.
If Judaism were to be summed up in one word, teshuvah is it, often incorrectly translated as 'repentance'. Teshuvah means 'return', a coming back to that which appeared to be lost, but which is actually there in front of us if we look.
The next few lines, encouraging the wicked and the sinner to return to G-d, stress that G-d is 'abundantly forgiving'. People do not believe this – so ingrained are we to punishments 'fitting the crime' that we do not understand that 'My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not My ways.'
This does not mean that G-d is inaccessible. What it does mean is that G-d cannot ultimately be described in human categories. Therefore, using our own intellectual and emotional resources, we find it almost impossible to comprehend that however wicked and sinful we think we are, teshuvah (return) will lead to a new life with hope, and that is all G-d requires from us, plus He makes Himself available at all times to help us on our way.
Furthermore, G-d always keeps His promises. Just as rain (a luxury in Israel) cannot help but water the ground and enable plants to sprout and grow, so when G-d tells us this, we should realize that His eternal and abundant forgiveness is for real.
'In place of the thornbush, a cypress will arise, and in place of the nettle a myrtle.'
This prophecy came true as the Jews eventually returned to their own Land, first in dribs and drabs, and then in greater numbers, until today most Jews live in Israel, including by far the largest number of Jewish children, our hope for the future.
But the cypress and the myrtle themselves are of huge importance in Jewish life, and are not simply used as examples to contrast with prickly types of vegetation. The cypress is a metaphor for strength and security, and the myrtle is one of the four species used annually in the increasingly popular Succot (Tabernacles) festival, coming straight after Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). But more of that at a later date.
There is a truly beautiful story of how modern seer, Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), 'the author of the vision of the Jewish State', correctly prophesied in 1897 that in exactly 50 years from that date there would actually be a Jewish State of Israel. His prediction came true in 1947. To demonstrate his commitment to this Land forever, he planted a cypress tree, which grew and grew, even though the Ottoman Turks, who ruled in that area (until the British conquered Jerusalem in 1917), cut it down. But still the cypress tree carried on growing and even spread all over the Land.
The eternal blossoming of the Israeli cypress continues to symbolize the never-ending blossoming of the Jewish spirit. Even though the world is able to cut down the Jewish tree, they cannot cut down the vision of Isaiah for the future, nor the positive hope of Herzl's dream for his people and their new life in their old country reborn: 'This will be a name for the Lord and an eternal sign never to be cut down', as it states in the last verse of Chapter 55.
Chapter 55 ends here and now we come to Chapter 56, which describes two sets of people who may see themselves as outsiders, but who are as worthy of redemption as anyone else. Just in case the rich, the flourishing, the conventional and the successful think that they have the upper hand and therefore earn sole or superior rights in G-d's world, they are in for a shock. For in G-d's world, people without a past and people without a future will be treated as if they were the crème de la crème of society, as far as G-d is concerned. It is how you behave in the present that matters.
This is an extremely important teaching, especially for all those who think that Judaism is patriarchal, hierarchical and self-righteous. Actually, the opposite is the case. As long as people 'preserve justice' and 'perform tsedaka', both non-Jewish people who seriously want to join in with the Jewish people, and eunuchs (of which there were quite a few in those days) are as welcome as anyone else to join in G-d's service.
Tsedaka means giving charity in a just way, or carrying out justice in a merciful way. It is simply not enough to keep the ritual laws between human beings and G-d. It is often far more difficult to be kind to other people, especially those we don't like or with whom we have fallen out. But G-d is emphasizing that outwardly doing the right thing is simply not G-d's way, and that justice and mercy are what Judaism is all about.
The non-Jew will not be 'kept utterly separate' from the Jewish people. Neither will the person who thinks of themselves as 'a dried-up tree', with no hope of having children, and therefore being remembered for posterity, be at all forgotten. In fact, the barren person who keeps Shabbat and also behaves in the way G-d wants (i.e. justly and kindly, in tandem), and in so doing 'grasps tightly to My covenant', will be embraced wholeheartedly by G-d: 'In My House and within My walls I will give them a sign and a name, better than sons and daughters; I will give them an eternal name which will never be cut down.'
Readers will note the similarities with the last verse of Chapter 55. But added is the phrase in Hebrew 'Yad VaShem' ('a sign and a name'). This phrase means that people who do not have physical markers of their heritage will have even better than that. For in the end, sons and daughters will die. But 'yad vashem' never dies.
And that is why when, less than 100 years ago, the whole world conspired to destroy the Jewish people and Jewish values, we nevertheless survived against all the odds, and started building again. And that is why the marker, the name and the sign of this survival, resurrection in fact, against all the odds and in the face of the rest of humanity, is symbolized by the teaching and memorial institution called Yad Vashem (taken from our own haftarah for Fast Days), and built deliberately in the Jerusalem Forest, where the greatest heroes, including Theodore Herzl, are buried – an eternal sign and name surrounded by a forest of trees – all based on our very own verse. Because the Jewish spirit will never die out. And those who wish to destroy us completely will never ever succeed. And this is where those Jews who had neither past, present, nor future, are eternally remembered.
And in case the chapter ends on a somewhat upsetting note, G-d now turns to the non-Jews who want to adhere to the Jewish people and values. He states that those who 'serve Him' and 'love the Name of the Lord to become His servers .... I will bring them to My holy mountain, and I shall gladden them in My house of prayer.... For My House shall be called a House of prayer for all the peoples.'
These are the words of the G-d 'Who gathers in the dispersed of Israel: 'I will gather to him even more than those already gathered.''
So these Fast Days are not to be consumed in self-flagellation: in fact those who are unable to fast - the old, the young, the ill, the pregnant, and the breast-feeding mother - are all treated leniently. The point of fast days is not to afflict ourselves to the point where we cannot understand the truth of G-d's words. Our wickedness and sins are to do with how we think about and behave towards those outside our own very narrow circle.
In our own day, when pundits are increasingly talking to themselves; lies are taken for granted by government; churches are forgetting what they are really all about; and the average person feels alienated from all, with no hope at the end of the tunnel, G-d, through Isaiah, is offering us a marvellous opportunity. Adhering to what G-d wants, which is clearly spelled out in our two Isaiah chapters this week, is far better than prestige, progeny and worldly success.
At the end of the day, the individual cannot live through their ancestors, their offspring, or their perpetual state of self-satisfaction. The individual has to come to the realization that the displaced and the unfortunate, the downtrodden and the sinner all have a place at G-d's table. And through teshuvah (return) much more than through self-denial, we will come to be part of G-d's people and find our true place in His world.