Haftorahs of consolation: “Sing and be joyful, O barren woman”

For people who don’t like the way the Redemption has been playing out over the last few generations, here is a suggestion: Read the Rambam.

Daniel Pinner ,

Jerusalem
Jerusalem
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“Sing joyously, O barren woman!”

On most Shabbatot and Festivals, the Haftarah (the Reading from the Prophets which follows the Reading of the Torah) echoes or complements the theme of the Torah-reading.

But for the final ten Shabbatot of the year, this paradigm changes: on the three Shabbatot of the Three Weeks of mourning (from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av) the Haftarot are prophetic castigations of Israel and warnings of G-d’s punishment for sins.

And the next seven Shabbatot, from the first Shabbat after the ninth of Av until the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Hashannah – the seven final Shabbatot of the year – are prophetic visions of comfort, all taken from Isaiah: inspiring prophecies of the wondrous future which awaits us, magnificent depictions of the Return to Zion, prophecies which only in the last generation or two have begun to materialise.

The Haftarah for Ki Teitzei opens:

“Sing joyously, O barren woman who has not given birth! Burst into joyous song and be jubilant, O woman who has never had birth-pangs! – Because there are more children of the desolate woman than children of the married woman, says Hashem” (Isaiah 54:1).

The Targum Yonatan renders: “Give praise, O Jerusalem, who was like a barren woman who has not given birth! Burst into praise and be jubilant, O you who was like a woman who has never had birth-pangs! – Because there will be more children of the Jerusalem which had been desolate than children of the populated city, says Hashem”.

The Targum renders “the married woman” as “the populated city” before its destruction. Rashi explains “the married woman” to mean a comparison with the enemy, “the daughter of Edom”.

The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235) offers further insights:

“‘Children of the desolate woman’ – even though Jerusalem was desolate for many years, she will yet have a multitude of children. ‘Children of the married woman’ – these are the idolaters who are like married women, meaning, like a woman who dwells with her husband and her children; as opposed to the widow and bereaved mother who is desolate – and that is Jerusalem who is ‘כְּאַלְמָנָה, like a widow’ (Lamentations 1:1). And [the prophet Jeremiah in Lamentations] said ‘like a widow’, but not actually a widow, because her Husband yet lives and endures!”.

That is to say – Jerusalem, who was as a widow, a barren woman: Rejoice and exult, because you will yet have more children in your midst than the mighty cities of idolaters!

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) connects this prophecy of Israel’s future with the Israel’s earliest experiences:

Even before Abraham and Sarah became Abraham and Sarah, when they were still Abram and Sarai, when they had despaired of having a son together who would continue their mission in the world, Sarai gave her handmaid Hagar to Abram as her surrogate.

Abram indeed “came to Hagar and she conceived; and when saw that she had conceived, she lost respect for her mistress” (Genesis 16:4).

And the Torah records Sarah’s response to Abram: “The outrage against me is because of you!” (v. 5).

The Ba’al ha-Turim (commentary to Genesis 16:5) notes that the word that Sarai uses here for “the insult to me”, חֲמָסִי, occurs only twice in the Tanach. The other occurrence is in one of Jeremiah’s resounding prophecies of doom for Babylon: “‘חֲמָסִי, may the outrage committed against me and my flesh be upon Babylon’, the inhabitant of Zion will say; ‘and my blood upon the inhabitants of the Chaldeans’, Jerusalem will say” (Jeremiah 51:35).

The Ba’al ha-Turim expounds, “Sarah is compared to Zion: of Sarah it says, ‘and Sarai was עֲקָרָה, barren’ (Genesis 11:30), and of Zion עֲקָרָה, ‘barren’ (Isaiah 54:1, the verse with which our Haftarah opens). Just as [Hagar] aggrieved Sarai, so the nations aggrieve Israel.”

So according to the Ba’al ha-Turim, the opening verse of our Haftarah demonstrates the connection between Sarah our mother and Zion, and between Hagar and the nations of the world who persecute us.

A century after Isaiah, during the Return to Zion, the beginning of the Second Jewish Commonwealth, and the Rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Prophet Zechariah prophesied: “Thus said Hashem, Lord of Legions: Old men and women will yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with his walking-stick in his hand because of his old age, and the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zechariah 8:4-5).

“Rabbi Eliezer said: There is no clearer sign of the Redemption then this” (Yalkut Shimoni, Zechariah 574).

The prophetic vision that the Prophet Zechariah depicts, and which Rabbi Eliezer describes as the clearest possible sign of the Redemption, does not mention the rebuilt Holy Temple, or Yeshivot, nor yet supernatural miracles. No mention of a fiery Holy Temple descending ready-built from the heavens, no hint of Jews being ingathered to Zion by flying miraculously through the air, borne on Clouds of Glory.

Just a normal, placid, suburban Jerusalemite scene. The sort of scene that anyone can see today by strolling through the streets of Jerusalem.

The sort of scene which is so familiar today that we don’t even get excited at seeing it.

Who was Rabbi Eliezer, who states that old men and old women sitting in Jerusalem and children playing in the streets of the city is the clearest possible sign of Redemption?

– Whenever the Talmud or the Midrash quote Rabbi Eliezer without defining which Rabbi Eliezer (there were seventeen Talmudic rabbis called Eliezer), they invariably refer to Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanos, known as Rabbi Eliezer the Great, the rabbi and mentor of Rabbi Akiva (Yerushalmi Pesachim 6:3) – the great leader and visionary who tried, with his legendary general, Shimon Bar Kochba, to bring the redemption.

Rabbi Akiva and Shimon Bar Kochba achieved an unprecedented victory against the Roman Empire, a military victory that no other nation in the world would ever match, a victory that would restore Jewish sovereignty to Israel for three years, before being defeated.

Rabbi Eliezer was the man who, with his friend and colleague Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, smuggled Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai out of Jerusalem during the destruction of the Holy Temple (Gittin 56a) in a desperate attempt to salvage something from the wreckage wrought by the Romans.

Rabbi Eliezer saw the Holy Temple in its final days, lived through its destruction, and was intimately connected with the redemption but failed to actualise it.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer both lived through the destruction of the Second Temple, and both desperately strove to bring about the redemption.

When Rabbi Eliezer spoke about the Redemption, he knew whereof he spoke.

A thousand years later, the Rambam would endorse Rabbi Eliezer’s vision of Redemption:

“It must never be imagined that in the days of the Mashiach any of the natural ways of the world will be cancelled, or that there will be anything new in the works of Creation; rather the world will continue in its natural way. And Isaiah’s saying that ‘the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid’ (Isaiah 11:6) is a parable and a coded message: it means that Israel will dwell securely in spite of the evil people of the nations, who are compared with wolves and leopards… They will all repent, returning to true Faith; they will neither steal nor destroy, rather they will eat permitted foods in tranquillity, together with the Jews…

“As our Sages said, there is no difference between this world and the days of Mashiach, with the sole difference that [Israel] will no longer be subjugated to [other] kingdoms” (Laws of Kings 12:1-2).

This is how the days of Mashiach begin: not with wondrous signs, not with supernatural miracles, not with the world changing fundamentally – but with the Nation of Israel returning to the Land of Israel, with Jews living normal, ordinary lives in Israel, without any foreign soldiers – Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Turkish, French, British, or any other – patrolling our streets and enforcing their laws.

Of course there will follow later stages in the process of Redemption: the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, the restoration of prophecy, the War of Gog and Magog, the restoration of the Jewish Monarchy of the line of King David – not necessarily in that order; as the Rambam (ibid) continues:

“And no one knows how all these events, and others like them, will happen, until they will happen, because they are all things which are concealed with the Prophets; and our Sages have no reliable tradition regarding these events”.

And then the Rambam offers very sage advice:

“No one should ever expend too much effort studying the parables [of Redemption], nor of the homiletic tales which are told about these and other similar matters; and neither should anyone make them the central principle, because they will never bring anyone to fear [of G-d], nor to love [of G-d]. Neither should anyone [attempt to] calculate the time of redemption; as our Sages said, ‘Damn the bones of those who [attempt to] calculate time of redemption!’ (Sanhedrin 97b).

“Rather, one must wait and believe in the general, overall matter of Redemption”.

When the Redemption comes, it comes in unexpected ways, from unexpected directions, wrought by unexpected people.

When G-d decides to redeem His people, the Redemption comes, the People of Israel return to their Land.

Indisputably, and predictably, there is no shortage of people, Jews and gentiles alike, who don’t like the way that the Redemption has been playing out over the last few generations. Of course there are those who would have preferred that it not happen at all; or that it happen in a different way; or that it happen faster, or slower, or at the hands of other people.

This is precisely what the Rambam warns against: Believe the general principle that the Redemption will happen, and leave the details to G-d. He will bring the Redemption in the way that He sees fit.

And when it happens, you will recognise it because Jews will once again be living in Jerusalem; the Redemption will have begun when “old men and women will yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with his walking-stick in his hand because of his old age, and the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets”.

And when you see this happen, “Sing joyously, O barren woman who has not given birth! Burst into joyous song and be jubilant, O woman who has never had birth-pangs! – Because there are more children of the desolate woman than children of the married woman, says Hashem”.

A heart-breaking post-script: As I was writing the final words of this D’var Torah, I was devastated to hear of the brutal murder of Rabbi Shai Ohayon Hy”d in Petach Tikvah by a terrorist, Khalil abd el-Khaliq Dweikat y”sh. The path to Redemption is painful: we have to fight for it against the forces of evil, who will stoop to all depravity to prevent it.

Rabbi Shai Ohayon Hy”d was universally known as a beloved teacher and a gentle soul. May Hashem comfort his young widow and four small children; may they merit to see the complete Redemption, soon, speedily, in our days.



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