HAFTARAT B’RIESHIT – Isaiah 42:5-43:10 – Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
The connection with Parashat B’reishit is evident in the very first verse (Isaiah 42:5):
Thus says the Eternal God, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who made the earth and all that grows in it, who gives breath to its people and spirit to all who walk on it.
On the face of it, the remainder of the Haftarah is less relevant to the theme of Creation: having established that the Eternal One is the Creator of everything, the passage goes on, in the very next verse, to focus on the particular relationship between the Eternal and the people Israel (:6):
I, the Eternal, have called you in righteousness, and taken you by the hand. I am the One who created you and make you a covenant people, a light to the nations.
But look again at this verse: the will of the Eternal, the One, reigns supreme, and the particular covenant people – am b’rit – cannot escape that will: We have a responsibility to discharge, both, to the Eternal, as ‘witnesses’ (:10), and to the other peoples, whom the Eternal has created. Our task as ‘a light to the nations’ is (:7):
to open our lives that are blind, to bring the captive art of confinement, those who sit in darkness, out of the dungeon.
It’s a heavy burden to be ‘a light to the nations’. Back in the sixth century BCE, during the Babylon exile, when the unknown author of this passage, referred to as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, the ‘second Isaiah’, was prophesying, failure to obey had exacted a terrible punishment (:24):
Who allowed Jacob to be plundered? Who gave Israel to the despoilers? It was none other than the Eternal, against whom they sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, to whose teaching they would not listen!
And what about the present day – do we still carry that burden? And if we do, what are the consequences, when we fail? These are difficult questions, and there are many possible answers. Whatever our responses, as long as we continue to read the Torah and Haftarah, as part of our weekly Jewish practice, we are challenged to make sense of these sacred texts, both, for our own lives and for the continuing life of the Jewish people.