November 29, 2023
November 29, 2023

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Finding Optimism in Difficult Times: Messages From Sefer Yeshayahu

This past week I finished teaching Yeshayahu as part of a podcast series for the OU’s Torat Imecha Nach Yomi initiative. It was a strange experience to put myself back into the eighth century B.C.E. when everything happening around me felt so pressing. I found, though, that it was Yeshayahu who gave me a perspective that felt most relevant to my current situation.

There is a “Twilight Zone” episode that takes place on an airplane that is under attack from a supernatural being. Only one passenger can see the danger and everyone else thinks that he is crazy. Even when the plane crashes, this passenger is taken off strapped to a gurney. Such is the plight of the prophet of Hashem. He or she sees a different reality and must convey that message, often a dark one, to their people. It is therefore not surprising that almost all of the prophets initially rejected this mission, pushing back on what Hashem demanded of them, a mission that would plunge them into darkness and alienate them from other people.

And then there is Yeshayahu. From the start he is different.

וָאֶשְׁמַ֞ע אֶת־ק֤וֹל אֲדֹנָ’ אֹמֵ֔ר אֶת־מִ֥י אֶשְׁלַ֖ח וּמִ֣י יֵֽלֶךְ־לָ֑נוּ וָאֹמַ֖ר הִנְנִ֥י שְׁלָחֵֽנִי׃

Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me.” (Yeshayahu 6:8)

What gave him this strength and endurance and even more so this desire? I believe that for Yeshayahu it was his perpetual optimism. While privy to a dark future that would, in fact, materialize (although not in his day), Yeshayahu consistently saw hope for a better day.

Before discussing the darkness of Yom Hashem (a devastating apocalyptic vision), Yeshayahu describes a utopian vision, an idyllic society where nations lay down their swords and stream toward the mountain of Hashem. Later, after the disappointment of the Judean king, Uziyahu, who threw out his own tremendous potential for more religious power, and his grandson, Achaz, who ignored Yeshayahu’s advice and sold his soul, so to speak, to the devil, by allying Jerusalem with Assyria, Yeshayahu sees hope in his son Chizkiyahu, a leader of justice who could herald in a time of justice and an end of violence where the wolf will lie with the lamb. Even though this doesn’t immediately materialize, his long view informs his vision of the present.

The past few months have objectively been a dark era. A few weeks ago we marked 100,000 American deaths. In the magnitude of this loss, the New York Times was only able to fit 10 percent of those names on their front cover. We sit at screens, lonely, looking at each other in boxes, and trying to stay socially close while physically distant (it’s hard). Racism still stains the ethical fiber of our country and our world.

And yet, I think, what would Yeshayahu say?

Perhaps he would envision better days, where our masks would be sewn back into T-shirts and a chokehold would become a hug.

Grandparents would once again hug their grandchildren and people of all colors would trust one another.

People would walk through the street without fear of hate and contagion for “the land will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, as the water covers the sea” (Yeshayahu 11:10).

Shira Schiowitz teaches Tanach and is co-director of professional development at SAR High School. She is the rebbetzin of Shaare Tefillah of Teaneck.

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