This past week, Sarit, an inspiring Judaic studies teacher, inquired into insights on the Haftorah of Parshas Lech Licha, which she plans to teach her students. I reviewed the area and became quite interested in the message of the prophet. I will cite a few, initial verses, and then examine each one: (Isaiah 40:27 through 41:4):
“Why does Jacob say, and why does Israel speak, “my way is hidden from God, and from my God, my justice is passed by?” Do you not know, have you not heard, the God of the universe, Hashem [who] created the corners of the Earth, does not tire and does not get wearied – there is no probing His understanding. He gives strength to the weak and grants abundant might to the powerless. And youths will tire and be wearied, and young men will certainly stumble. And those who hope to God will be exchanged with strength, and they will sprout wings like eagles, they will run and will not weary, and they will go and will not be tired. Be silent to Me you islands, and nations of renewed strength, draw near, then you will speak, draw close to judgment as one. Who awakened the one from the East, at whose feet righteousness called; delivering before him nations and subduing kings; they were as dust before his sword, like blown straw before his arrow? He pursued them and emerged peacefully, on a path he never traveled. Who brought about and accomplished this? Who called out generation from the beginning? I am God – I am the First, and I will be with the last generations, I am He.”
What forces a person to say, “My way is hidden from God, and from my God, my justice is passed by”? Radak states this sentiment reflects the attitude of the Jews in exile, subjugated by other nations to endure painful hardships. One, whose sense of justice misleads him to feel God should save him, will express such a sentiment. One might even have a true evaluation that he is unjustly pained, and complains when he does not witness God’s immediate salvation. He might then conclude that God does not know his pain, for if He did, He would surely step in to save him. Of course, this is a myopic view of reality: innumerable factors and considerations are weighed by the One, true God, factors too numerous for mortal man to fathom or weigh justly.
Rightfully so, the prophet speaking God’s response says, “God of the universe, Hashem [who] created the corners of the Earth.” Why is this the accurate and precise response to one denying God’s knowledge of mankind? The reason being that if God is the Creator of the universe and the “corners of the Earth” (including man) God could not have been the Creator, if He was ignorant of what he was creating! A carpenter cannot be ignorant of the chair he builds. So too, God cannot be ignorant of His creation - of mankind.
The answer above is perfect. However, we might ask: Why was this answer introduced with the question, “Do you not know, have you not heard”? Again, the prophet here is speaking precisely what God commanded. This means that these introductory words are of equal importance. The words, “Do you not know, have you not heard?” are addressed to someone claiming God is ignorant. But who is the one who is truly ignorant here? Of course, it is the person who is complaining! He is ignorant of that which should be the most obvious truth, i.e., God knows what He creates! It is unimaginable that it could be otherwise. To alert the complaining person of his inexcusable error, the prophet ridicules him as if to say, “You say God is ignorant…it is YOU who is ignorant, and on top of that, the matter is most obvious!” This is the sense of the prophet’s words. He is commanded by God to be emphatic, and to act alarmed at how foolish the complainer is.
Why use “emphasis”? Such emphasis is used for the precise purpose of conveying to the fool how “far” from the truth he really is. Emphasis is the precise response when we wish to convey a high degree of something, for example, the saying, “I am so hungry I can eat a horse.” Here is a case of emphasizing a “positive” idea. But we also use emphasis to convey a opposite: “You made a wrong turn FIVE TIMES on one trip around the block?!” This is quite funny, but delivers the point: in such a short distance, five wrong turns is emphasized as unbelievable. So too is the case the prophet here. He ridicules a person who says, “God does not know something”, by emphasizing the opposite: “Do you not know, have you not heard?” In other words, “You are the one who doesn’t know…God created the world (and man) so he MUST know our actions.”
The prophet adds two new ideas with this phrase. We already stated that God, who creates man, knows man. This is sufficient in terms of man’s initial “creation”. God possesses the “quality” of knowledge. But what about the “quantity”, meaning, how much does God really know? What of man’s continued activities…is God “constantly” watching us? To remove any doubts, the prophet teaches that God does not tire. That which we experience as a cause for our limited scope of understanding cannot apply to God. But the prophet goes on, stating that we cannot fathom, or probe God’s knowledge. We are incapable of evaluating God’s knowledge. Hence, for another reason, we cannot make a statement that God does not know about our pain: we simply know nothing about God’s knowledge. This latter reason is a far more compelling argument. When man realizes that he knows nothing about God, he feels foolish that he suggested some positive notion about God – the One Being man knows nothing about. The prophet corrects the complainer’s wrong ideas. God teaches us through the words of the prophets, replacing our false ideas with truths.
We just stated that God does not weary or get tired. Now we are taught “why” this is: He creates the laws of weariness and tiredness! Amazing. We never look at our own frailties in this light, that they are “created” laws. God designed our tiring natures, just as God designed our bodies. And this being so, is the best argument “why” God never tires: He is not governed by His creation, and tiredness is a creation. So the prophet teaches us “Why doesn’t God get tired? Because God created tiredness.” The prophet teaches that since God “gives strength to the weak and grants abundant might to the powerless”, He is in full control of “tiredness”, and it does not control Him. Hence, God knows all of man’s actions and pains.
This illustrates how just the opposite is true: it is man who tires, but not God. It also teaches a deeper lesson: it is because of our own tiredness that we falsely project this frailty onto God. We learn that our initial sentiment that God does not know our pain due to His tiredness, is baseless, and a mere projection of human shortcomings. Furthermore, why mention in specific “youths” and “young men”? I feel these two groups were referred to so as to teach that even the strongest and most vibrant among us are subject to becoming tired. No one escapes this natural law. Not even the strongest.
“And those who hope to God will be exchanged with strength, and they will sprout wings like eagles, they will run and will not weary, and they will go and will not be tired”
Not only does God create the laws of nature, like man becoming wearisome, but He also suspends His laws. This is the mark of the true Creator: nothing escapes His control. So even the very laws He created are subject to His will, and he can grant strength to those who are normally smitten with no enduring strength at all. God will give unnatural strength to those who follow Him. Samson was a prime example.
“Be silent to Me you islands, and nations, of renewed strength, draw near, then you will speak, draw close to judgment as one”
God addresses the nations abusing the Jews. He tells them to be silent, for now they will have to hear God’s wisdom, and not haughtily assume they are victorious over the Jews whom they abuse. The nations of “renewed strength” will now see how long they get to retain their strength, when God decides otherwise, as punishment for their ill treatment of the Jews. The fact that they must “draw close to judgment as one” awakens them to the reality that they are not in control, but there is One who judges them, that being God. “Then you will speak” intimates that in fact, you won’t have any complaints. At the very outset it was the Jews who spoke without wisdom. Now, God addresses the nations and rebukes them even before they open their mouths. God teaches that they won’t possibly have any complaint, for God will eventually mete out to them perfect justice. “Draw close to judgment as one” means to say that they are all equally subjugated to God’s absolute justice system. Furthermore, we find an answer to the Jews who initially spoke: God will render justice; regardless of why He doesn’t do so immediately. That is not within man’s understanding, as we stated earlier. Nonetheless, God guarantees He will deliver justice.
“Who awakened the one from the East, at whose feet righteousness called; delivering before him nations and subduing kings; they were as dust before his sword, like blown straw before his arrow”
God refers to Abraham, the man from the East. God illustrates with an example a proof of how He strengthens someone who follows His righteousness, to the degree that he subdued kings, as if they were nothing to his sword and arrow. “Examples” are the best form of proof. The fact that God not only promises to act in a certain way but also fulfills His promise leads to a firm conviction in man’s heart.
Abraham fought four mighty kings, so strong; they defeated another group of five mighty kings. Yet, Abraham was determined to save his nephew Lote, and God protected him. Rashi states not one of Abraham’s men died in battle, as indicated by the word “peacefully”. When he traveled roads unfamiliar, he was never lost. Nor was he deterred.
From God’s perspective, God teaches how far He goes to shelter His loved ones. But what is learned about God, from the words “on a path he never traveled”? This teaches that although completely unfamiliar with his surroundings, meaning, with no military tactics and completely left in the hands of the enemy without strategy, God still shielded Abraham. Nothing is outside of God’s control, when he wishes to protect His faithful servants.
“Who brought about and accomplished this? Who called out generation from the beginning?”
We now come full circle. God completes His message to those who would complain He is ignorant of man’s plights. Who accomplished this for Abraham? It was God. Furthermore, God is the one who started all the generations of mankind. He is the sole cause, as it says, “from the beginning”. The very inception of something is brought about by its true, exclusive cause. Man’s inception was God’s act. This teaches further, than man’s existence is inextricably tied to God’s will. Man cannot endure that which God is ignorant of.
“I am God – I am the First, and I will be with the last generations, I am He.”
God answers His question: “I am God”. Why does God answer His own question? Perhaps this embellishes the idea that ‘only’ He can answer…only He has this knowledge. This is the primary lesson of this entire Haftorah. Man’s knowledge does not compare to God’s knowledge. Therefore, those Jews were wrong to question why God hadn’t saved the yet.
Unkelos explains this verse to mean, “I am God: I created the world in the beginning even all eternity is Mine, and aside from Me, there is no other god.” God says He was with the first generations, to teach that He alone preceded mankind and created the world: no one else is responsible for man’s existence. He alone – no other gods – will also be with the last generations. This teaches God’s permanence. “Permanence” means that nothing is as real as God. God’s very nature is to exist. All else requires creation and expires over time. Why must we know this for this lesson? Perhaps, as the primary lesson was to teach man how his knowledge is insufficient to judge God, God further explains that by definition, man does not need to exist. He is temporary. But only That which endures throughout time, That which is eternal, is what we consider “absolutely true.” Thus, God is truth. Man’s notions are vanities. Man is further instructed in this last verse to realize his meek position compared to God.
“I will be with the last generations”
Another idea expressed here is that God knows of the future generations. Knowledge of the “future” is yet another aspect of how God’s knowledge far surpasses man’s knowledge. The main message is again reiterated, but offering mankind further insight into this issue.
In general, the very “response” of God to those complaining Jews, is itself a proof of God’s cognizance of man. How else could He “respond” if he does not take note of man?
Man possesses a tiny view of God’s justice. Our complaints are borne out of real issues, but are expressed with infinitesimally small knowledge. Complaining about how God manages justice is a foolish endeavor…as He created justice! Only He knows all matters, so only He may sufficiently define something as a “good” or “evil”. Ours is to study so our knowledge becomes less imperfect. We are fortunate to have God’s prophets to instruct us in God’s ways, so we do not follow falsehoods.
We see how much knowledge is enclosed, and available, in the words of the prophets. Simply reading the Torah does a grave injustice to both the Torah, and us. If we are humble enough, we will recognize the enormity of wisdom that exists. Such a prospect will certainly drive us to uncover deeper insights, because we know they are as buried treasures waiting for us to uncover them.
A possible reason this portion of Isaiah is the selected Haftorah of Lech Licha, is because Lech Licha addresses how God aided Abraham in the best fashion: offering him circumstances and commands to perfect him. Isaiah also refers to Abraham and to God’s methods of perfecting mankind. God is not blind to our plights.