Judah was an independent kingdom from 931 to 586 B.C.E.1
Then the Babylonians conquered the country; destroyed its capital city, Jerusalem; razed the temple of the God of Israel; and forced the leaders and skilled craftsmen of Judah into exile in Babylon.
The Judahites in Babylon began to lose faith and assimilate. The prophets known as Ezekiel and second Isaiah2 urged their people to return to worshiping their own God. Then, they prophesied, God would return them to their own land.
For seven weeks after Tisha Be-Av, the annual day of fasting to mourn both times that a foreign empire destroyed Jerusalem and its temple,3 each Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is accompanied by a “haftarah of consolation”. All seven of these haftarah readings are from second Isaiah.
This week the Torah reading Re-eih is accompanied by the third haftarah of consolation. Here God promises to rebuild Jerusalem so it will be more beautiful and more secure than before.4 Then God calls out:
Oh!5 Everyone who is thirsty, go for water!
And who has no silver, go buy and eat!
Go buy [food] without silver,
And wine and milk at no cost! (Isaiah 55:1)
The 8th-century prophet Amos had previously predicted:
“Hey! The time is coming,” says my lord God, “when I will send hunger into the land: not a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of God. They will wander from sea to sea and from the north to the east they will roam to seek the word of God, but they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)
Since that first reference in the book of Amos, many Jewish sources have compared a desire for words of Torah to a thirst for water. Five tractates of the Talmud cite the line from our haftarah, “Everyone who is thirsty, go for water!” as proof that water means Torah study, and then go on to deduce something about the study of Torah.6
For example, tractate Bava Kama asks why the written text of the Torah is read out loud to the community on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The rabbis answer that in Exodus 15:22, the Israelites traveled for three days after crossing the Reed Sea, and then complained because they had not found water. Therefore the people should not go for more than three days without hearing or reading Torah, they said, citing Isaiah 55:1:
Those who interpret verses metaphorically said that water here is referring to nothing other than torah, as it is stated metaphorically, concerning those who desire wisdom: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come for water”7
torah (תּוֹרָה) = instruction; law. (This is the meaning of torah in the Hebrew Bible, derived from the verb yoreh, יוֹרֶה = instruct, teach. A homonym of yoreh means “give to drink” in Biblical Hebrew.)
By Talmudic times, torah could also mean the first five books of the bible; the entire Hebrew Bible; the laws written in the bible; and the combination of written torah (the Hebrew Bible) and oral torah (all subsequent Jewish interpretations of the bible, to the present day).
Amos warns that torah, God’s instructions, cannot be found outside the Israelite kingdoms. But second Isaiah indicates that the exiled Judahites can learn torah even in Babylon. All they need is the thirst to seek out the teachers among their own people, including prophets who could share new information from God.
Why should you weigh out silver for what is not bread,
And the earnings of your labor for what does not satisfy?
Keep listening to me, and eat what is good,
And you will pamper yourself by plumping up your soul.
Turn your ear and go to me,
Listen and revive your soul.
And I will cut with you an everlasting covenant,
The faithful loyalty [I showed] to David. (Isaiah 55:2-3)
In other words, listening to torah, the words of God, is the most valuable activity in the world (besides what you need to do for bare survival). Learning torah plumps up (literally, fattens) and revives the soul that animates your body, just as drinking and eating fatten and revive your physical body.
Fresh water, from rain, springs, or wells, is a natural (or God-given) resource, like air and sunlight.
And just as one who desires to drink should be able to drink without cost, so all who desire to learn the law should be able to learn without cost and without price … (Midrash Tanchuma)8
From the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. until the 20th-century takeover of most of the world by capitalism, the Jewish tradition was that students could learn torah (in all senses of the word) from rabbis for free. Rabbis were supported by side jobs, by their wives, or by their communities as a whole.
In Isaiah 55:1, God says everyone who is thirsty or hungry should go and “buy” milk, wine, and food, as well as water, for free.
Water, food, wine, and milk
Perhaps milk, wine, food, and water represent four kinds of torah. The written Hebrew Bible is a conglomeration of:
- stories, from foundational myths to historical events;
- laws for religious rituals, including offerings to God at the temple;
- laws for ethical behavior toward other human beings; and
- statements about the nature of God.
Milk is essential for life for all very young mammals, and stories are essential for human children to begin to make sense of the world. Stories are important in the bible, in the Talmud, and in Jewish life to the present; they go beyond mere facts to tell us about human nature and the ways of the world. These stories are as nourishing as milk.
Wine appears in the bible both as a libation at the altar, and a drink at feasts to celebrate gifts from God. Wine is still part of Jewish religious rituals such as welcoming Shabbat and observing Passover, as well as individual rites of passage. Rituals help people to organize their otherwise chaotic lives, and, like the Jewish practice of saying blessings, make us aware of occasions for gratitude. Wine could represent religious rituals and blessings.
Food is essential for all life to continue; a code of ethics is essential for any human society to continue. Ethical laws are scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible, not just in the Ten Commandments. Those that appear most often are injunctions to help feed the poor and the stranger. So food might stand for the ethical injunctions in torah.
That leaves water to represent the nature of God. Water is transparent; God is invisible, heard (at least inside the minds of inspired humans) but not seen. Water flows to fill any shape; the bible describes God in many different ways, as a creator and a destroyer, a dealer of strict justice and a compassionate savior. Both plants and animals need water to live and to grow; and according to the bible and later torah, all life comes from God.
The third haftarah of consolation ends with Isaiah 55:5, which prophecies that the Judahites will be rescued by a nation they had never heard of—which turned out to be the Persian Empire. Right after that come two verses that could console anyone who studies torah:
Inquire about God when [God] is present;
Call when [God] is becoming near.
Let the wicked abandon their path,
And their plans for doing harm.
Let them turn back to God, and [God] will have compassion for them;
To our God, for [God] abundantly forgives. (Isaiah 55:6-7)
If we are thirsty to enlarge our attitude toward life, we can go for the water of an inspired teaching, including much of torah. If we recognize and abandon our selfishness and spite, we can be forgiven, if only by the still, small voice within us. And then our animating souls will plump up and revive.
- At times, however, the kings of Judah paid tribute to nearby empires in exchange for peace.
- Most of Isaiah 1-39 consists of the prophecies of Isaiah son of Amotz, who lived in Jerusalem when the Assyrians besieged it in 701 B.C.E. (but failed to capture the city). Isaiah 40-66, sometimes called “second Isaiah”, is a collection of writings dating from after the Babylonians succeeded in capturing Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E..
- Tisha Be-Av commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and by the Romans in 70 C.E. See my post Lamentations: Seeking Comfort.
- This is the simple meaning of Isaiah 54:11-17. For an alternate interpretation of this passage, see my post Haftarat Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser.
- The all-purpose Hebrew interjection I translate as “Oh” is hoy, הוֹי. It appears many times in the prophets, from 1 Kings to Habakuk, but nowhere else in the bible.
- Talmud Bavli: Avodah Zara 5b, Bava Kamma 17a and 82a, Kidduishin 30b, Sukkah 52b, and Taanit 7a.
- Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 82a, William Davidson translation in sefaria.org.
- Midrash Tanchuma was written during the 6th-9th centuries C.E. This commentary, Vayakhel 8:1, cites Isaiah 55:1. Translation from sefaria.org.