Weekly Torah Commentary – Devarim July 28, 2017

Torah reading:  Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Haftorah reading:  Isaiah 1: 1-27

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.  Isaiah 1:1

Isaiah

Someone has called Isaiah the ‘Shakespeare of the biblical writers’ because of his passion and eloquence.  As we will have several Haftorah readings in the next few weeks from Isaiah’s book, let’s take a look at this man – who he was and when he lived.

Who was Isaiah? His ministry spanned the reigns of at least four kings, most likely five – Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah and probably into the reign of Manasseh. This is a period of approximately 40 years, covering the time of the second half of the 8th century B.C. (750-700). The son of Amoz, he exercised his ministry in and around Jerusalem. Some commentators speculate that he was from a well-to-do family with ties to the royal family. He was married and had at least two sons but we are told precious little about his personal and family life.

Isaiah was a contemporary of two other prophets – Micah, who also prophesied in Jerusalem (Judah), and Hosea, who prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel. There is no mention of Isaiah and Micah knowing each other, although it is impossible to see how they could not have. There is no reference to Micah having access to the kings as Isaiah did, which again indicates that Isaiah had connections not available to Micah.

The times of Isaiah were turbulent, to say the least. King Uzziah, who reigned for fifty two years, led Judah during a period of prosperity not known since the days of Solomon. Jeroboam II reigned in Israel during most of Uzziah’s reign and had similar success. But their deaths were a turning point. By 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel were destroyed by Assyria, its people forever scattered. Judah survived the Assyrian threat, but not before being reduced to a subservient country, impoverished by paying taxes to Assyria.

Uzziah’s son, Jotham served for sixteen years, pretty much in the same vein as his father. Both were described as being faithful to God, although Uzziah for some reason let pride get the best of him and fancied himself as being able to carry out the work of a priest. He entered into the temple area, reserved only for priests, and tried to burn incense on the altar. He was struck with leprosy which resulted in his death.

Ahaz, the next king, was the consummate opportunist, guided by one principle – his own ego. It was during his reign that Assyria conquered Israel; in fact, it was at his invitation! Israel wanted Judah to join them and dethrone Ahaz, in order to place their own puppet king on the throne. Ahaz’s reaction was to entreat the king of Assyria to come to his aid. The result was utter devastation for the northern kingdom of Israel and the submission of the southern kingdom of Judah. Ahaz also used his throne to promote idolatry and even offered his own sons to the fires of false gods.

Hezekiah succeeded his father and clearly was not his “father’s son.”  He followed the Lord, using his throne to bring reform to the country. It was Hezekiah who had the courage to tear down the pagan altars. He also dealt with Assyria, but unlike his father he turned to the Lord for deliverance through the counsel and encouragement of Isaiah.

The highlight of Hezekiah’s and Isaiah’s careers occurred in their response to a siege by Assyria. There were actually two separate threats made against Jerusalem by Sennacherib, king of Assyria. In the first, he sent his general to Jerusalem to order the surrender of the city. Dismayed, Hezekiah turned to the temple to pray and sent a petition to Isaiah to engage in prayer.  Isaiah strengthened the king with an encouraging prophecy that the Assyrian king would turn away due to false reports he would receive. Hezekiah then held steady, and, true to the prophecy, the Assyrian king turned away with his army. Years later Sennacherib would renew threats to Hezekiah, who again turned to God in prayer and received another promising word from Isaiah. That time, the Assyrian army was struck with a plague.  How different from the conniving Ahaz!

All the prophets, to be sure, proclaim the salvation of the Lord, but none can match Isaiah for the sheer grandeur of proclamation regarding God’s salvation.

Steadily and masterfully, the prophet describes and expands an exalted vision of the great act of redemption and restoration for God’s people. He does not merely proclaim these things will take place, but he takes every act and concept to great magnitude.  It is Isaiah who proclaims a salvation and restoration more grand than could have been imagined, culminating a new Jerusalem ‘whose righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch, who will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.’ (Isaiah 62:1-3).

If we wanted to summarize the theme of Isaiah’s book, it would be this verse:  And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.  Isaiah 40:5

The incomparable glory of God shines through this book as the prophet expounds on the glory, majesty and holiness of the Holy One of Israel.

In Tune With Torah this week =  For Isaiah, true insight into the meaning of life is not merely that there is a God out there who loves us and offers a wonderful plan for us; it is that all things and everyone live for the glory of God. God does not exist for us; we exist for Him. The wonderful news Isaiah declares is that God is most glorified by his work of redemption.

Over the next few weeks, the haftorah readings will be primarily from Isaiah.  Expect to be enlightened and inspired by the visions and prophecies of this amazing servant of God.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Beresheit October 27, 2016

Torah reading this week:  Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

Haftorah reading:  Isaiah 42:5 – 43:10

For three weeks we will be reading portions from the book of Isaiah as companion readings to the weekly Torah.  In this section that is partnered with Genesis 1-6, the reading begins with the verse:

Thus says the Lord God who created the heavens and stretched the out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it.  Isaiah 42:5

This verse clearly refers back to the account of creation and establishes the rationale for the arrangement of the Haftorah readings in the yearly cycle.  Each section was chosen by its ability to mirror a principle or truth which the Torah reading holds forth from week to week.

fearnot

Chapter 40 of Isaiah begins the second half of the book of Isaiah and it is from this second half that the readings for this week and the next two weeks are taken.   In Chapters 1 to 39, God warned his people about judgement for their national sins. At that time, Assyria was the enemy and Isaiah himself lived through the events of this period.

In Chapters 40 to 66, God promises comfort to his people. (The word ‘comfort’ appears 13 times.) In these chapters, Babylon rather than Assyria is the enemy. God’s people have been exiled to Babylon because of their unfaithfulness to God. What Isaiah describes in this second half of the book he will not live to see for the events occur two hundred years later.

In Chapters 40 and 41, Isaiah reminds the people that God rules over nations and over history.  He reminds the people that sin has consequences and that false gods have no power.  He also assures His own people of His abiding love and care for them.

I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you….I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another nor My praise to graven images.  42:6,8

The prophet cries to Israel to sing a new song to the Lord – to praise Him unreservedly.

Tell the whole world to sing a new song to the Lord. Tell those who sail the seas to join in the song. And tell those who live in distant places to join in too. Let people who live in the deserts and in the cities sing aloud to praise God. Let the people in Kedar praise him. Let the inhabitants of the city called Sela shout for joy from the tops of the mountains.  Let the inhabitants of distant nations praise the Lord. Let them give him great honor.  42:10-12

From its earliest days, Israel was taught to praise the Lord, to worship Him as the one and only true God of heaven and earth.  That truth is foundational to all of the Scriptures and is encapsulated in the well know words of Deuteronomy: Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is One.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind and with all your strength.

The revelation of God as One Supreme Being was first recognized by Abraham who spread that truth far and wide and passed it on to his descendants ‘that the world might know…’

Yet despite all their miraculous history, Israel had not learned as a nation to walk in the righteousness they were called to and God raised up Isaiah to warn them as a loving father does his children.  The spiritual blindness of the people, their disobedience to His instructions would bring discipline in the form of exile from their Land; yet, even in the stern warning there was a promise of future redemption.

 But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel.  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine!  43:1

This is the promise that to this day the people of God can rely on with absolute faith for as it says in another place in scripture, God is not a man that He should lie…

From before creation, God, who is love, had a plan which issued from His very being; a plan to create not only a physical earth and heavens but a people who would come to know Him, to learn from Him, to listen to Him and to live according to His ways.  As He is all knowing, it was not hidden from Him that many among mankind would rebel against His ways, and refuse to walk according to His commandments.  But His dream of a people who would fellowship with Him was not minimized by the reality that some would refuse His love.  Rather, His vision was towards those who would respond with hearts of faith and of love and seek to know Him, follow Him and live out their days in His presence and according to His Word.

Here is the wonderful truth: if you believe in Him, love Him and have dedicated yourself to living according to His ways, He was thinking of you – YES, YOU! – before creation.  That in itself is an amazing truth that boggles the mind.  But it’s true – absolutely true – and should elicit from all of us a ‘new song’ of praise and thanksgiving for His abundant goodness and love.

For we have all failed Him during our journey of seeking to walk in His ways.  Yet His promise of redemption can never fail us for unlike us, He is eternally, irrevocably, immutably faithful. What He has said, He will do. And when God sets out to do something, no power in the universe can stop Him!

He knows you by name and has provided eternal redemption because of  His love.

Should we not be moved to love such an awesome God in return? To lay aside anything and everything that would hinder us from walking according to His ways and His Word?

This week’s Haftorah urges us to remember and appreciate the wonders of creation, the glory of the Creator and our precious opportunity to show our gratitude by living in obedience to the One Who has so loved us.

Shabbat shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Beshalach January 22, 2016

Exodus 13:17-17:16

In last week’s reading, we reviewed the first seven plagues and their effect on Egypt.  The saga continues into this week’s reading with the last three plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn of every Egyptian household, from the palace of Pharaoh to the hut of the lowliest Egyptian.  Even the firstborn of the Egyptians’ animals died. But in Goshen, where the Hebrews lived, not one firstborn died because of the obedience of the people to swab the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts, as instructed by God through Moses.  This story is re-told in full every Passover.

Studying the passage this year, I was suddenly struck by a thought that had never entered my mind in all the years I’ve been studying the scriptures.  Could it be that in fact there were, in a manner of speaking, eleven plagues? Not just ten, as we commonly think?  Let me explain.

The process of getting Pharaoh to finally agree to release his army of slave laborers, the children of Israel, was a lengthy and painful one for the Egyptian people.  The water turned to blood, their homes were infested with frogs, the very dust turned into swarms and swarms of lice and on and on it continued until the final devastating plague: the death of every firstborn in Egypt.  Finally Pharaoh relented and in fact, commanded Moses to take the people and go.

However, though the children of Israel walked out of Egypt into the desert, Pharaoh still had the option of harassing them.  We see it happen when shortly after their departure, Pharaoh says to his advisers, ‘What have we done, letting all those Israelite slaves get away?’  They decide to take action.

‘So Pharaoh harnessed his chariot and called up his troops.  He took with him 600 of Egypt’s best chariots, along with the rest of the chariots of Egypt, each with its commander.  The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, so he chased after the people of Israel…’  Exodus 14:6-8

Was their freedom to be so short-lived?  Would a brief taste of freedom disintegrate into ever deeper slavery? Were they to be dragged back to Egypt in chains and subjected to harsh punishment?

By this time, seven days after they left Egypt, the Hebrews were camped by the shores of the sea. Terrified as they saw Pharaoh’s vast army approaching from the distance, the people cried and Moses prayed. At God’s instruction, Moses extended his staff over the waters and God made a way through the sea for His people.

Pharaoh and his army plunged after them, galloping into the sea as the last of the Israelites climbed up on the opposite shore. Moses lifted his staff again and the text relates that all of Egypt’s army was destroyed, its chariots, its armor and its soldiers. Is it any wonder that the people burst forth into a song of praise as they witnessed the victory of God on their behalf?  This, I propose, could be considered the 11th plague.

The mighty Hand of God had purchased their redemption in Egypt, but at the Red Sea that redemption was secured.  Not only were they free men, but the very oppressor who had enslaved them was now stripped of his ability to inflict any further harm upon them or to drag them back into slavery again.  No wonder Miriam led the women in a song of celebration as they danced for joy.

Devoted to God and His Torah, we seek to live our life within the parameters of His will. Yet in this life we encounter “harassment” in the form of trials, disappointments, setbacks and outright temptations.  We may be out of Egypt but we stand by the sea of this world pursued by an old ‘master’ every bit as real as Pharaoh of old.

Yet we have this precious hope: at the coming of the Messiah, the redeemed of the Lord will no longer have to struggle with the harassment of a former ‘master’.

In Tune with Torah this week = earlier generations had a keen sense of anticipation regarding the appearance of the promised Messiah.  Maimonides said, ‘Though the Messiah tarry, I will await him every day.’ Have we in this generation become so entangled in the pursuits of this life that our desire for His appearing is dulled?  Do we really want him to come?  Does the reality of eternal life in the presence of God impact the way we live? Are we eager to see the final ‘securing’ of our Redemption?

Shabbat Shalom

Join our study on Psalm 119 by visiting Coffee & Commentary