by Saul Beck
The third Haftarah of Consolation is from the second half of the book of Isaiah, like the others; the historical context is also sometime after 538 B.C.E., following Cyrus's decree of restoration. While this particular Haftarah is quite short, there are nevertheless two halves to it, each dealing with a somewhat different theme. The first half begins with more promises of the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem; these should be familiar enough from the previous two Haftarot of Consolation. Isaiah predicts that the people will remain loyal to God, and God will protect them in every way, since no harm can befall them without God's consent.
The second half is different. Isaiah invites the people of Judah to “drink deeply” of God's teachings. He goes on to discuss God's covenant with King David of old; this covenant of loyalty as found in the book of Samuel promised an eternal reign over Israel for David and his descendants. Isaiah, however, applies this royal covenant to the entire people of Judah, not only the offspring of the Davidic dynasty. The Haftarah concludes by explaining that by virtue of this nationwide royal status, the other nations will come to recognize the one God and serve the nation of Judah.
While the first half of the Haftarah is familiar enough, the second half definitely introduces some new topics to the Haftarot of Consolation. It focuses less on the historical context and more on our relationship to other nations, and our own nature besides. The most interesting part is probably the verse concerning the covenant with King David. While it might appear to be a messianic reference, it actually has nothing to do with the Davidic dynasty itself. The covenant promising eternal royalty is extended to the entire people of Judah. What, exactly, does this mean?
In answering this question, it is important to consider the traditional definition of royalty from antiquity all the way to the modern era. There are two central characteristics of a king: blood, and land. A ruler must have a proper bloodline to be royalty, and through that bloodline he is tied inexorably to the land over which he rules. The original Davidic covenant would presumably fit this definition: itwould apply to David and his bloodline, in conjunction with the land of Israel. However, in a notably radical change, Isaiah is turning this definition of royalty on its head. No
longer is the Davidic covenant restricted to David's bloodline, nor does it apply any less when we lack autonomy over the land of Israel. The point is that all Jews are royalty. Indeed one needs not even be from the Twelve Tribes; an earnest desire for God's teachings is enough to merit inclusion in this royal covenant. What makes the Jews special is that we tend to be ones to seek God's teachings; our children are “disciples of the Lord,” as Isaiah puts it. By virtue of this learning, we gain royal status in the eyes of God; in the Messianic era, we will even acquire leadership over other nations.
This leadership is not a privilege, nor is this royalty inherent. It is conditional upon our behavior, a responsibility to uphold. Our royalty is a meritocracy, based on our learning and our desire to be close to God, who grants none of us automatic high status but gives us the potential to acquire it during our lifetimes. Only this merit – not blood, nor land – will grant us royal status among the nations.
Few good things came out of the Babylonian exile, certainly, but this notion was one of them. Scholars have called it the democratization of Judaism, the prerequisite to our modern meritocracy of learning. Without a king or a land, the exiles realized just how equal they all were in God's eyes; prophets such as Isaiah drove this message home. No one has bragging rights, yet all of us have potential; this is the lesson of the Haftarah.