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Sing you barren that you did not bear

Author: Esther Ehrman, Cheshvan 5766/Nov 2005

Isaiah Ch. 54

A text study of Isaiah's prophetic message of consolation.

The section of the Book of Isaiah that opens with the words 'Sing you barren that you did not bear' is read in Synagogues twice – most of it is read three times – every year. It opens the text of the Haftara (prophetic reading) that accompanies the reading of the weekly Torah portion, Noah; it is also the fifth of the seven Haftarot of Consolation read between the 9th of Av that marks the destruction of the Temples and the month of Tishri which opens the New Year with the Days of Awe, of judgment and atonement (the third of the Haftarot of Consolation consists of the same text, omitting the first ten verses).

'Sing you barren that you did not bear' hardly sounds consolatory. To be barren means having no future. Indeed, that is how critics of Judaism read it. We know of one vivid exchange of views recorded in the Gemara (Berakhot 10A) that illustrates this. Here, a second century Judaeo-Christian (the Gemara text has the censor's 'Sadducee' to replace a possible allusion to Christianity in the original word 'min', but then the two interlocutors would have lived three hundred years apart) suggests that it is Judaism that is barren and has no future: 'Because she is barren, she should sing?' He is speaking to the learned Beruria who, as we know, lived at a time when there was bitter hostility between Jews and the 'Minim'. Her swift retort is 'You fool! Look at the end of the verse: "For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, says the Lord" the meaning is: Sing, congregation of Israel, which is likened to a barren woman, who did not bear sons of your kind, for hell' (i.e. for heresy).

Isaiah's text is not easy to understand and commentators read it variously. Rashi (11th century) understands that the reference is to Jerusalem, bereft of its exiled population.

The consolation might refer to Messianic times or, as Redak (11th/12th cent.) thinks, to the returnees from exiles in the future. Redak also thinks that Jerusalem, though for now abandoned, is to be preferred to the Roman matron who does not even know of the Torah – more or less in agreement with the view of Beruria.

The repopulation of Jerusalem is promised in the next few verses "widen your tent...lengthen your cords" , meaning: make room for all the people who will fill your city; you will not only repopulate your land but also other cities now abandoned (verse 3)

The future, this renewal of life is, the prophet tells, covenanted by The Almighty. He may have turned His countenance away, abandoned you, for a brief moment (v.8), but His kindness and mercy will be everlasting (chesed olam rachamtich). Mountains can move, but His kindness will not move away, hills can totter, but His covenant is as unshakeable as His promise to Noah that waters will never flood the whole earth again (9v.). The consolation here lies in the unequivocal assurances of everlasting kindness and mercy, an unconditional assurance like the promise made to Noah.

Isaiah now reverts to the city of Jerusalem. Not only will it be filled with renewed life its foundations, its windows, doors and gates, even its surroundings will be beautified, set with precious stones (v.11,12). And not only will it be beautiful; it will enjoy peace, because "your children will be taught by the Lord" (v.13) Whether the understanding is that a state of peace will allow all to study Torah (Maimonides) or whether the study of Torah will ensure peace between all its different interpretations (Rav Kook), beauty Torah and peace are assured by the prophet.

With the assurance of renewed life, of never failing mercy, of Torah learning and internal peace there now comes the assurance of security from outside oppression (v.14,15). Not that oppression will disappear, but that it will not harm Zion. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, this is followed in the text by the statement that it was the Lord who created the smith who forges weapons and "I have created the destroyer who destroys" (v.16), followed by the promise that that no weapon will harm the servants of the Lord, since that is part of their 'heritage' (v.17). In Isaiah's vision, oppression and destruction continue to exist. The world remains this world. An unconditional covenant with Israel ensures its blessings in the midst of a world that has not changed its ways.

The last section, (Ch.55, v.1-5) again addresses the whole people, " All who thirst, go to water; whoever has no money, go, buy and eat, buy without money, without price, wine and milk" (v.1.). The text here is understood as an exhortation to all to come and learn, to drink from the wells, the water, wine and milk of the Torah, to come to the Almighty and live (v.3) and so that they may be given the everlasting covenant given to King David. Whereas the earlier assurances of life and mercy were given unconditionally, this covenant is offered to those who listen, "Incline your ear...come to Me". The covenant with David is everlasting ( the word 'everlasting' accompanies the references to it in the Psalms and in Chronicles), but the sovereignty of the House of David will be enjoyed by those who listen to G-d's word. This is, as it were, the icing on the cake of the blessings already announced by the prophet. Then others will follow you, recognising that it was the Holy One of Israel who gave you that glorious future, le ma'an HaShem elokeicha ve likedosh Israel, ki phe'arach, "for the sake of the Lord your G-d and for the Holy one of Israel, for He glorified you" (v.5).

The language of the prophet is full of visual imagery. We have seen the downcast, abandoned widow and her tent opening out, a deserted Jerusalem followed by its milling life and its glittering houses; we have seen scenes of Torah learning and peace while strife remains in the distance; and we have seen a distant vision of the courts of the House of David.

Isaiah's message of consolation is clear and powerful. There is a future for the desolate, seemingly barren and abandoned Jerusalem. It is as assured as the rainbow after the Flood. The Almighty's covenant with the people of Israel is unbroken and the blessings of the Torah are there for all who follow its ways

(This article is based on a talk at one of the Etta Kossowsky study group sessions.)