June 22, 2024
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June 22, 2024
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Parshat Yitro

This morning’s parsha describes for us the great “theophany,” the revelation of God, at Har Sinai, an event witnessed by the entire nation, experienced by millions of people. This morning’s haftarah relates to us the personal “theophany” of the navi Yeshayahu who alone sees the vision of Hashem’s throne and His glory and is charged to bring the vision and divine message to the entire nation. Although the prophet’s vision and message is found in the sixth perek of Yeshayahu, most commentaries agree that it is the earliest of all the prophecies delivered by this great navi; indeed, it is his formal “induction” to the service of Hashem. Much in the same way, Bnei Yisrael are “inaugurated” into the service of God at Har Sinai, with Hashem declaring “V’atem tihyu li mamlechet kohanim,” “And you will be a kingdom of priests (better: attendants) for me.” And just as the people trembled and stood afar in fear of witnessing God’s revelation, so too, Yeshayahu feared that he would die for having “seen” Hashem.

It is interesting to note that the Ramban, in his commentary on the Aseret Hadibrot, points out that the pronouncements of God heard by the nation were understood by each and every person according to his or her own abilities. It was not simply a communal experience but an intensely personal one as well, and perhaps the choice of this perek as the haftarah was meant to teach that Yeshayahu’s individual encounter with God described therein was, ultimately, not that different from the one experienced by all of Israel at Har Sinai.

In essence, however, it is the contrast between the two events that cries out to us, for the glory revealed to Bnei Yisrael at Sinai was meant to impress upon them the power and majesty of Hashem and, accordingly, the absolute necessity of accepting and keeping His mitzvot. The vision seen by the navi, on the other hand, was part of his inauguration into God’s service to accept the mission of admonishing the nation who failed to perform the mitzvot and to warn them that God’s punishment would not cease “until the cities become desolate … and the land become … wasted and Hashem will drive the people away…”

Interestingly, the reason that Yeshayahu feared he was doomed after seeing the holy vision of the glory of Hashem was that he believed himself unfit to witness such vision. Additionally, he gave another reason for his feeling of inadequacy, saying that he dwelled amongst a people of “impure lips.” Chazal in the Gemara (Yevamot 49b) criticize the prophet for these words and point to the words of God’s “saraph” who, when touching a hot coal upon Yeshayahu’s lips, told the navi that his act now has removed his “iniquity.” That “iniquity,” Chazal explain, was the fact that Yeshayahu had spoken ill of Israel.

We are rightfully puzzled by this approach of our rabbis, for, when sharing His prophecy with Yeshayahu, Hashem describes Israel as a nation that hears but does not comprehend, who sees but does not know. The prophecy handed to the navi includes the prediction that if Israel refuses to repent her cities will be desolate, her houses will be empty and her land will be wasted. After such a harsh description of Israel and prediction of what would befall the nation, why would God have taken offense at Yeshayahu’s depiction of the sinful people?

I have often seen the reaction of Hashem (as Chazal describe it) to be like that of the parent who reprimands his wayward child and harshly describes to him how unacceptable his behavior was. But when a neighbor would criticize the child with those same words, the parent would rush to protect and defend him. “It is acceptable for me to speak to my child that way,” he would tell the neighbor, “he is my child, after all, and he knows how much I love him. But you have no right to speak to him that way!”

We are God’s children. And He loves us. And He can—and does—speak to us harshly. But no one else—not even a God-chosen prophet—may speak ill of Hashem’s children!

Today, we look back upon the thousands of years during which those harsh words came true, but now we are blessed and see a reversal of this vision as the people have returned and the cities are heavily populated and the land gives forth fruit.

And we know that the miracle will continue as long as we, His children, continue to heed the words pronounced so long ago at Har Sinai.


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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