God’s Parenting, and Ours

Of all the connections between the texts we read this week in Torah and Prophets, the one that strikes me the most is the matter of parenting. I confess to being a parent, as are many of you, so perhaps my antennae are especially sensitive to these words. While that may be so, I believe the words speak palpably to all of us.

At the beginning of the verses in Isaiah, the prophet observes the great suffering experienced by the people in exile. They are so forlorn that they proclaim that God must have forsaken and forgotten them. God responds immediately with this extraordinary message of comfort: “Can a woman forget her baby, or not feel compassion for the child of her womb.” The Divine One continues, “Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”

Make no mistake. The children strayed. They went awfully wayward and suffered the consequences for it through loss, painful exile, and degradation. Yet, the Parent never forgets, never loses compassion, and never abandons hope for the children’s return. Isn’t it so as well for us and the children we parent? God says to us: “I have engraved you upon My clouds; your walls are before Me always.” Whatever mistakes and troubles befall our own children, haven’t we, too, always engraved them upon our world and placed their settings before us?

God’s children have lost their own children in the exile. They were bereaved, left by themselves. Yet, God tells them that their children “will hasten to return,” and, when they do, they will say they want a place in the restored land, asking that room be created so that they may dwell. It’s as if God’s children, alone themselves, have also lost their future, and God seeks to restore both. Don’t we, too, seek the same, to restore our children and their future?

As difficult as it was, Isaiah saw it as his mission to help the people so that they could return and that God would “comfort her ruins” and “make her wilderness like Eden.” Isaiah guided God’s children, as Moses did in an earlier time. And as the Torah shows us this week, we, too, must, in our own time, teach God’s word to our own children. “Gladness will be found there, thanksgiving and the sound of music.”

And, as we do so, even in the painful times, we should always remember from God’s firm but patient parenting that we must never lose hope in our children’s future.

God’s Double Comfort

We begin this week learning one of the most profound messages of consolation in sacred text. In essence, however great our promise and however disappointing our waywardness, God always seeks our return and creates a path back for it.

Moses teaches powerfully of God’s oneness, our duties to the Divine, and the bounteous blessings that come when we live in God’s ways. The importance of this covenant is significant for those it binds, but it extends even beyond our boundaries to touch the whole world. “For this is your wisdom and your understanding that the nations shall hear.” And, thus, its violation is especially egregious in God’s eyes. “When…you corrupt…yourselves…and…do evil…you will provoke your God.”

As we turn to Isaiah, we see instantly that the people did just that, betraying God, and doing so severely, even after many warnings and encouragements to stay true.

So, what’s Isaiah’s message in this text? I suggest it’s threefold.

First, God’s mercy is expansive. God asks the prophet to comfort the people in exile and then asks him to comfort them again, as if to show a special lovingkindness. The path back is to be straight. God’s promise of covenant will “stand forever” as the glory of God “will be revealed” to “all flesh.” God is our Redeemer, our Shepherd, and, though we are too often prone to dishonor this truth through idolatry, the One to Whom nothing can be likened.

Second, God’s mercy does not come cheap. There’s a heavy price that is paid by those who abandon God, and do so in front of the nations to whom they were instead to bring the Divine light. Those in ancient times lost the Temple, were devastated and sent into exile, and suffered degradation in Babylonia.

Finally, however, God does not seek our destruction, but rather our return. The good news comes from high into the mountain: “Behold your God:” Our triumph, our reward, our recompense – all are God’s ultimately. And that truth, the linking of our beneficent fate to the Eternal, is indeed doubly comforting.

Stings and Honey

I love the fact that the first verses of Isaiah accompany the reading each year of the first portion of Deuteronomy.

Here are two fun facts: 1) the Hebrew word for this last book of the Torah and its first portion is d’varim, and 2) the Hebrew word for bees is d’vorim.

Bees! What might bees have to do with the words of Moses and Isaiah?

First, the words of both leaders sting the people. Moses tries in his last oration to make sure the people remember their straying in the wilderness and its costs, and to warn against it in the future. Isaiah, upon freshly seeing waywardness, pricks thus: “Woe, they are a sinful nation…(they) have forsaken God…(their) country is desolate; (their) cities are burned with fire….”

Second, the honey bee also gives us sweet nourishment. Moses comforts the people by teaching that God is with us, watches us, fights for us, and blesses us. Is there honey any sweeter than those words? Isaiah says even in the midst of sin there’s hope for return: “If you are willing and obey, you will eat the goodness of the land.”

Third, whatever honey we store away, as with words we learn and follow, it’s sweetness we keep and store away in this life and for God. Isaiah tells us to “learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow.” To what sweet end? “Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her through righteousness.”

Like the honey bee, Moses dies soon after giving us both the honey and the sting. According to the Talmud, Isaiah suffered martyrdom.

But their words – both their stings and their honey – nourish us today and every day forever.

If Only From Now On

How jarring it is to read the Torah portion this week along with its companion Haftarah piece from the Prophets.

In the Torah, we complete Numbers, all full of anticipation of entering the Promised Land. We remember our long journey from Egypt. With God’s blessing, we begin to think of the new land and its opportunities – how it will be fairly divided, how we will live there, and by what standards we will be governed.

As with all things of great promise, the heart is full, and hope is high. Even with warnings that we must be true and right in our ways, the music of life is all in a major chord.

Yet, in Jeremiah, as the scene shifts centuries later, we read of God saying furiously, “I brought you into a fruitful land, to eat its fruit and bounty; but you came and contaminated My land, and made My heritage into an abomination.” The priests had forgotten God. Those charged with teaching of God “did not know” God. The people rebelled.

Instead of living in accord with the principles God had established for them, they wandered across the land “like a harlot.”

And, soon to be back on the road to Egypt and to Assyria, lands where there can only be pain and distress, the people face a future that only holds forth bitterness. The contrast with the scene we just read in Numbers could not be greater.

Here’s the gift of looking at both texts at the same time: there is no separation of centuries in our experience of learning. We see together both the promise of following God and the consequence of betraying God. The effect, I believe, should be to cause us never to lose sight of both truths, that of the promise and that of the consequence, however tempted we are, especially when things are going well.

Keep the promise of living true to the principles firmly in mind. And keep the consequence of betraying them in mind. Always.

Ashkenazi Jews add Jeremiah 3:4 at the very end of the reading: “If only from now on you would call Me “My Father! You are the Master of my youth.” If only from now on….