Torah Study 01-07-17: Isaiah
Notes from Torah Study 01-07-17
Location: Dan & Laurie’s
Started with chant of Panu Derech , from Isaiah 40:3.
Isaiah prophesized primarily in the kingdom of Judah at a key time in the history of the Hebrew people, just before and during the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom and near-conquest of Judah. He was prophet during the reign of 4 kings of Judah, most notably Hezekiah, who our sages say could have been the moshiach, if only . . .
The book of Isaiah is huge, and it’s study could take us at least a full year at the rate we typically go. However, it contains some very famous lines that have been used in Hebrew liturgy, song, and even in the general culture. So we focused on some of those sections where these quotable quotes are found.
The book of Isaiah, while like the other prophets has its share of doom and gloom, also is known for its transcendant vision to a time when all nations live as one, the age of moshiach. As our study begins to wind down for the year, and as we face the impending change in government administration, it seems the more upbeat tone of Isaiah might be welcome.
Isaiah 2:1-4: “The torah will go forth from Zion . . . they will cut their swords into ploughs . . . no nation will lift a sword against another nation, and they will no longer learn war”
The prophet speaks of a time we all yearn for. Haven’t we had enough of war, really? That the same material could make swords with which to kill, and ploughs with which to work with the earth to feed, illuminates the principle, always present in Jewish teachings, of free will and freedom to choose that humans have. Blessing or curse, life or death – the choice is always ours.
And, again, in the verses that immediately follow this uplifting and idyllic imagery, Isaiah goes right back to elucidating the sins of the people, including bringing in other forms worship and the addiction to materialism, that are leading to national destruction. This back and forth is present in all the prophets, reminding us that as humans we all have both parts within us at all times, the joy-heartfull and the violent-hurtful. The prophet exhorts the people to remember their spiritual practices, not to practice those of others. Relating this to modern trends, it does make one think of the role of honoring what has been passed down, to know one’s own ancestral spiritual heritage well at least, to have that context before exploring others.
To answer the question “Who am I?” flows from these considerations. Michaelangelo’s depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of God reaching out to touch Adam finger-to-finger was invoked, noting that God is pictured within a shape that has been described as that of the human brain. Or perhaps it’s a womb? And we also recognize that this is not the story of the Hebrew myth of First Man’s birth, as Genesis 2:7 describes first human being formed of the dust of the earth, enlivened with soul by the breath of Creator/Elohim.
Isaiah 6:1-10 “Holy, holy, holy is the Master of Legions, the entire world is filled with His glory!”
Isaiah has a mystical vision of the Holy one, rivaling those of Moses and (later) Ezekiel. This line, which is read daily in the Jewish siddur, is called out from one angelic being to another who are in the presence of the Holy One. The Seraphim have six wings – do they look like insects? Or perhaps like the structure of the Aitz Chayim? Six alludes to the letter vav, the connecting letter meaning “and”, but also grammatically reversing past and future, as well as indicating the 6 middle sefirot in the Tree that connect the upper divine emanations to the earthly kingdom of Malchut.
The question: “Why is God always said to be in the sky?”, led to much discussion about ideas of God imminent (as in Shechinah) and God transcendent (HaKadosh Baruch hu), as well as similar concepts in other spiritual traditions, e.g. Father Sky and Mother Earth. We, as humans, seem to need to dichotomize in this way, see things as up and down from our own perspective. Earth is worshipped as being here, dark, present, as compared to the out there, light, transcendent character of Sky.
The seraphin take a hot coal from the altar with a tong – why the detail of the tong? – and touch it to Isaiah’s lips to cleanse him of his sins. This feels like the shofar blast of Yom Kippur! Isaiah responds to this anointment to his task with a bold “Hineni”, and he is given his marching orders to point out to the people they have ears but do not hear, and eyes but do not see. The vision ends with the promise that though much of the nation will be lost, there will be a regeneration from the remnant, for the trunk of the tree is “holy seed”. This is earth energy, this is the energy that regenerates the forest after a fire. This is the energy of the Jewish people.
Isaiah 11:1 “ . . . there will go forth a shoot from the trunk of Yishai and a blossom will grow “.
This idea of regeneration, here connected to the line of David, son of Yishai, continues in this verse. Isaiah moves into a description of the era of the moshiach, when . . .
Isaiah 11:6 “the wolf will live with the sheep, and the leopard will lie peacefully with the kid . . . the earth has become filled with the knowledge of the Infinite One”
What do our prophecies offer the world? In this era, ancient prophetic wisdom from many indigenous peoples is being made known (e.g. the condor and the eagle shall fly together). The words of Isaiah speak of a time that will transcend nationalism and war.
And yet, and also, the times lived by Isaiah were times of tribal war, including between Israel and Judah. And we can interpret much of the canonized Hebrew bible as being chosen to show the superiority of Judah.
“I’m angry at religion! Here’s the new religion – be a (expletive) human being, your religion is secondary!” We ache for a transcendent unification beyond religion. Or maybe not transcendant, maybe a going down, getting earthy, connection “below” the flying aspirations of religion. And yet, religion inspired Michaelangelo, and explains in words what can’t be put into words, serves as conduit, a ground, a language to hold the common experiences.
Isaiah 12:3 “ . . . and you will draw water with joy from the wellsprings of salvation . .”
The earthiness of the text brings us into joyful contact with the element of water. Water, so present in our consciousness these days. Mni Wiconi – water is life, the meme of the Standing Rock movement. The rains that have been blessing LA and California these past weeks, so needed, we are so grateful. What if, every time you drank water, bathed in water, saw water, you remembered these words of the prophet and allowed water to connect you with the Infinite. That would be an example of living in the world with indigenous mind, or being a walking prayer, or grabbing your friend by the hand on each side and dancing in a joyous circle – mayim, mayim, mayim . . .
Next gathering: Saturday February 4, 10-noon, location TBD