(Note: I will be traveling during the week of Passover, so I’m publishing my post for April 24-30 ahead of time. This year, the eight days of Passover end on April 30, 2016.)
For the eighth day of Passover/Pesach, the special Torah reading is Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, which includes directions for observing Passover “so that you will remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life”. (See last week’s post, Pesach: The Matzah of Misery.)
The haftarah (the accompanying reading from the Prophets) is Isaiah 10:32-12:6. It mentions Egypt only in Isaiah’s prediction that God will return the Israelites from the far-flung places where they were deported by Assyrian Empire.
God will dry up the tongue of the sea of Egypt, and will wave a hand over the River [Euphrates] with the might of God’s ruach and break it into seven wadis so it can be walked over dry-shod. And it will become a highway for the remainder of God’s people who remained from Assyria, like [the highway] for Israel on the day it went up from the land of Egypt. (Isaiah 11:15-16)
ruach (רוּחַ) = wind (when blowing over water); spirit (when sweeping into a human being).
But the return of the exiled Israelites is only part of Isaiah’s grand vision in this week’s haftarah.
The prophet has been urging King Achaz of Judah to avoid taking sides in the revolt of Aram and the northern kingdom of Israel against the empire of Assyria, which had conquered the two states during the 8th century B.C.E. Isaiah tells the king of Judah that Aram, Israel, and even Assyria will all disappear in only a few years. God has a three-part plan. First God will eliminate the vast empire of Assyria; then a great and righteous king will arise in Judah; and finally people everywhere will unite in worshiping Judah’s God.
In the ancient Near East, people believed major change came from the top down: from god to king to the people. A great king was required for a civilization to be transformed. So Isaiah prophesies:
A shoot will go out from the stump of Jesse
And a crown from its root will bear fruit.
And a ruach of God will rest upon him,
A ruach of wisdom and insight,
A ruach of counsel and courage,
A ruach of knowledge and awe of God. (Isaiah 11:1-2)
God will inspire a human king, a descendant of King David’s father Jesse, to establish a moral government. Then, Isaiah prophesies, human nature itself will change.
A wolf will dwell with a young ram,
And a leopard will lie down with a goat kid,
And a calf and a young lion will pasture together,
And a little boy will be leading them.
And a heifer and a she-bear will graze
And they will let their young ones lie down together.
And a lion, like an ox, will eat straw.
A baby will play over a viper’s hole,
And a toddler will put his hand over a snake’s lair. (Isaiah 11:6-8)
In other words, there will be no predators; all animals will be peaceful and non-violent. Judah and the other small countries in the hills of Canaan are like lambs, kids, calves, babies. But in the future, the wolves, leopards, lions, and bears of great empires will no longer prey on them.
Not only will all peoples live together in peace, but they will all be morally upright and search out the same god.
They will do no evil nor destruction
On all My holy mountain
Because the land will be as filled with seekers of God
As the water covering the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse will be standing
As a banner for peoples.
Nations will come to him with inquiries,
And his haven will be honored. (Isaiah 11: 9-10)
Isaiah claims that this great king from “the root of Jesse” will arise in just a few years—i.e. right after the reign of King Achaz. Achaz’s son Hezekiah was indeed one of the religious kings praised by the Bible. But after Hezekiah’s reign (~716-697 B.C.E.), people noticed that the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy was no closer to coming true; the empires of Assyria and Egypt continued to squabble over ownership of the lands between them until the Neo-Babylonian Empire became the new top predator.
We are still waiting for world peace. Christianity developed the theory that Isaiah’s righteous king was Jesus, who would return someday to straighten out the world. According to traditional Judaism, we are still waiting for the messiah—or at least for a messianic era without predators or prey.
According to the Torah, the Israelites in Egypt waited 400 years for an opportunity to escape and become a free people, serving only their god.
We have already waited over 2,400 years for Isaiah’s vision to come true. Maybe it’s time to stop praying to an all-powerful God who lives outside the world. Maybe it’s even time to stop waiting for a Moses, a king, a messiah. We need to take action ourselves.
Imagine one individual after another dedicating him-or-her-self to respecting everyone and preying on no one; to avoiding violence; and to seeking the divine in everyone and everything.
May all human beings become filled with the ruach of Isaiah’s inspiration.