Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Lekh-Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), and the haftarah is Isaiah 40:27-41:16.
What do you do when you once had a relationship with God, but now God seems to be absent?
The question is painful on this anniversary of Kristallnacht. It is especially painful for those who believe in God as a benevolent parent or guardian, an external force looking after them and ensuring that, ultimately, good people will be rewarded, innocent people will have a chance, and everything will turn out for the best.
Then something happens: Job is afflicted, Jerusalem is razed, the Nazis torture and kill millions of innocents, girls are raped, the day’s news threatens future darkness. And it no longer makes sense to trust in a benevolent external God.
What do you do when God seems absent?
Many psalms address this question, and so does the second half of the book of Isaiah, written about 50 years after the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem and deported its population. The prophet we know only as “second Isaiah” tried to persuade the Israelites that their God was still alive and strong, and would soon rescue them. This week’s haftarah from second Isaiah opens:
Why do you say, Jacob,
And why do you assert, Israel:
“My path is hidden from God,
My claim slips away from my God.” (Isaiah 40:27)
The Israelites believe that God cannot see what is happening to them, and that their covenant with the God of Israel has slipped away. They feel invisible to God. Second Isaiah responds:
Do you not know?
Surely you have heard?
God is the god of all time,
Creator of the ends of the earth.
Never yiyaf and never will It grow weary.
No one can fathom the depth of Its tevunah. (Isaiah 40: 28)
yiyaf (יִהעַף) = will he/It become faint, will tire out.
tevunah (תְּבוּנָּה) = insight, intelligence, discernment, skill.
The prophet counters that the God of Israel is the god of all time and all space, whose powers never flag and who has infinite insight. Therefore the Israelites cannot be invisible to God.
They feel invisible to God only because God is invisible to them. Living in Babylon, they see no evidence of their God. The city is full of statues, reliefs, and paintings of other gods, but not the God of Israel. Their own god let the Babylonians raze the temple in Jerusalem, and let them languish in exile for decades. Has God run out of power?
Second Isaiah says not only that God never grows faint or weary, but adds that God is:
Notein laya-eif koach,
And [giver] of abundant energy to those without vigor. (Isaiah 40:29)
Notein (נוֹתֵן) = Giver, giving.
laya-eif (לַיָּעֵף) = to the faint, to the tired. (From the same root as yiyaf.)
koach (כֹּחַ) = strength, endurance, power, ability to carry on.
Notein laya-eif koach = Giver of strength to the faint and tired.
Thus the prophet counters that not only is God powerful, but God is the one who gives strength and energy to human beings fainting with weariness.
Once again, second Isaiah declares that reality is the reverse of what the Israelites think. God is not worn out; they are.
When I read the first line of Isaiah 40:29 in Hebrew, I recognized it from the Jewish morning blessings. Our tradition upon arising is to bless God in gratitude for a list of blessings that come from God to us, including sight when we open our eyes, clothing, the ability to walk, and so on.
Out of the 16 morning blessings in the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, 12 are dictated by the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot (“Blessings”). One of the blessings that is not from the Talmud is:
Blessed are You, God, our God, Ruler of everything, hanotein laya-eif koach.
hanotein (הַנּוֹתֵן) = the one who gives, the giver.
I often pronounce this blessing with extra enthusiasm, since I have chronically low energy, yet I am determined to make the most of my life.
Although some of second Isaiah’s exhortations no longer apply today, many of us still feel invisible to whatever runs the universe, as if “My path is hidden from God”. Many of us still feel as if we’re drowning in a sea of exhaustion. And many of us still feel doomed by the agendas of other people, or by the results (such as global warming) of past human actions.
Second Isaiah says that our God is powerful and always with us. I conclude that our task is to learn how to sense God within, and draw inner strength from that sense. We can fathom the depth of our own insight. Then we might discover a core of divine strength within — and maybe even enough prophetic intuition to see our own paths.
May every one of us discover our own inner God, and draw strength from that connection to rise above our inevitable wounds and dedicate ourselves to kindness and patience. And as we keep learning more about ourselves, may we keep learning more about other people — checking our assumptions, questioning hearsay, opening our minds to understand people who may seem like enemies until we get to know them. May God strengthen us inside so we can cooperate to make life on this fragile earth as good as is possible now for all of us.