Reflections – Vaetchanan
The haftarah of Shabbat Nachamu is the first of seven prophecies of consolation. These follow the national and religious trauma wreaked by the destruction of the Temple and the exile to Babylon which we marked last week on Tisha B’Av. But it’s not clear how this week’s reading is supposed to console us.
In the haftarah’s first section (Isaiah 40:1-11), the prophet declares that Israel’s period of punishment is over and that their suffering will now come to an end. Against the backdrop of redemption, he describes a revelation of God. The mountains and valleys of the desert will be flattened, opening a clear path for the people to return home, and the presence of God will appear. Against a vision of the fragility and inconsequentiality of human beings (‘All flesh is grass’¦ Grass withers, flowers fade, but the word of our God is always fulfilled’ [v. 6-8]), the prophet commands the people to return without fear to Jerusalem, shepherded by a nurturing and faithful God.
The second section (v. 12-26) is about the denigration of idolatry. God is described as incommensurable with anything human; He is eternal, omnipresent and all-powerful. In contrast, idols are depicted as the creation of human beings. The prophet mocks them and their makers, wondering how can you take a religion seriously when its objects of worship have to be constructed carefully to prevent them from rotting or toppling over (v. 20)?
Bible scholars have shown that the book of Isaiah comprises two (if not more) distinct works. The earlier chapters, narrated by Isaiah ben Amotz, date from the period of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests in the eighth century BCE. The second part of the book (beginning with our haftarah) reflects the tail-end of the Babylonian empire, the rise of Persia and the end of the Exile, around two hundred years later. Professor Yair Hoffman of Tel Aviv University has noted that the mocking, disparaging presentation of paganism is specific to this later work, attributed to an author known as ‘Isaiah II.’
Isaiah ben Amotz took idolatry seriously, attacking it as a philosophical system which was grounded in an over-inflated sense of human pride. By worshipping their own creations, idolaters were essentially worshipping themselves, refusing to accept that they were created by and obligated to obey God. Isaiah II ignores these powerful philosophical and psychological motifs, choosing instead to attack paganism’s external aspects and presenting idol worshippers as stupid, not wilfully sinful. Did the prophet fail to plumb the depths of pagan ideology, or is his presentation an educational device, designed to distance the people from idolatry?
Whatever the case, our original question remains: is the Nahamu prophecy supposed to comfort us with a message of God’s presence and protection, or through its argument for God’s power contrasted with the impotence of idols? Is consolation to be derived from a direct experience of God, or through intellectual argument? It might be suggested that if the experience of the divine is the root of all authentic religiosity, theology is a second rate substitute that comes into its own when this kind of immediate encounter is unavailable. However, there is an alternative, perhaps more compelling, perspective: in its infancy, religion was based on the egotistical worship of a God whose job was to look after us. But putting God at the service of human beings can be said to be another form of idolatry. Perhaps today’s haftarah is suggesting that true consolation requires us to evolve towards a less immediate, less certain, but far less self-regarding form of religiosity.