If you’ve read my musings before, you know that I have a passion for trying to redeem texts, especially so-called irredeemable texts. Texts that are so troublesome they often cause one to question whether all the rest of the good stuff found in our sacred texts is really enough to compensate for the existence of the troubling text. It’s even worse when some of the best and worst text are in close proximity (as in, for example, last week’s parasha, Va’etkhanan, in which we find the restatement of the Decalogue (the ten commandments) and parts of the Sh’ma prayer right next to exhortations for the Israelites to utterly wipe out the inhabitants of the lands they are about to possess. We get even more of that at the start of this week’s parasha, Eikev.
The writings of the prophets are no less full of troubling things. Now, this week’s haftarah is part of a collection of seven hopeful, consoling haftarot that we read after Tisha B’Av It contains many uplifting thoughts. Yet the prophet cannot resist mixing in the rebukes and cautions. Somewhat like the parasha, as well.
Eikev, and it’s accompanying Haftarah (from Isaiah 49:14-51:3) can provide great comfort for those who worry about the fate of the State of Israel. They (and we) have endured difficult times before. Both the reading from the Torah and from the prophets for this parasha offer hope, and I commend them to you as a source of strength.
Yet this evening, I want to focus on one short section of our haftarah, Isaiah 50:11:
הֵן כֻּלְּכֶם קֹדְחֵי אֵשׁ מְאַזְּרֵי זִיקוֹת לְכוּ ׀ בְּאוּר אֶשְׁכֶם וּבְזִיקוֹת בִּֽעַרְתֶּם מִיָּדִי הָֽיְתָה־זֹּאת לָכֶם לְמַֽעֲצֵבָה תִּשְׁכָּבֽוּן:
Hein kul’khem kod’khei eish You are kindlers of fire
M’az’rei zikot “Helping along” the firebrands
L’khu b’ur eshkhem Walk by the light of your fire
uv’zikot bi’ar’tam And the firebrands you have lit
Miyad hay’tah-zot lakhem From My hand has this come to you: L’ma’atzeivah tish’kavun You shall lie down in pain.
Now, let’s, for the moment, ignore the final couplet. Taken by itself, without any other context, the first part of this verse is open for interpretation in some rather positive ways. As as species, we are certainly prone to viewing our mastery of fire as a great achievement-one of which we can be proud. We should walk in the light of our proud achievements. Or should we?
If we begin to add a little context, let’s see what happens. The previous verse states (in summation) that those who revere G-d and follow G-d’s ways, even though they may walk in darkness, they can trust and rely on G-d.
מִי בָכֶם יְרֵא יְהֹוָה שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל עַבְדּוֹ אֲשֶׁר ׀ הָלַךְ חֲשֵׁכִים וְאֵין נֹגַהּ לוֹ יִבְטַח בְּשֵׁם יְהֹוָה וְיִשָּׁעֵן בֵּֽאלֹהָֽיו
Mi bakhem y’rei Ad”nai Who among you is in awe of Ad”nai
shomeia bakol avdo and harkens to the voice of His servant?
Asher halakh hashikhim though he walks in darkness
V’ein noga lo and has no light
Yivtakh basheim Ad”nai may he trust in G”d’s name
V’yisha-ein b’Elohav and depend upon his G”d.
Well, that certainly seems to color our interpretation of verse 11 a different way. However, we may choose to continue to view it as supportive, positive and complimentary. If the fire, the lights that we kindle are but an expression of our faith and reverence for G”d, then walking in their light should be a proper, righteous and safe path.
On the other hand, it could be setting up verse 11 as a wry or satirical comment. It is in G”d that we should trust, and not the hubris that comes from our own mastery of fire.
That understanding is given further support when we mix in that last couplet from verse 11. In effect, it is punishment from G”d that we shall lie down in pain. Is this punishment for our hubris? Chastisement for our kindling our own lights when we should trust in G”d instead, and not worry about the darkness?
This is a fairly common interpretation in both Jewish and Christian commentaries. Yet, though I humbly ask myself once again “who I am to take issue with the sages?” I do believe there is another possible interpretation.
After all, Torah is fire. Indeed, she is holy fire-eish hakodesh. If the fire that we kindle is the fire of Torah, then it is by the light of Torah that we would be walking. This is a righteous kindling, a righteous walking. Yet, what of the laying down in pain?
Well, to begin with, scholars continue to debate the exact meaning of “l’ma’atzeivah.” It could be pain, it could be sorrow. Or grief. Or displeasure. Or torment.
The question is whether or not this final couplet is illustrating a negative consequence of the previous two couplets. I suggest it may not. Perhaps the “this” which has come to us from G-d’s hand is G-d’s Torah. And the reference to “lying down in sorrow/pain/whatever” is telling us that when we no longer are able to walk by the light of the fire of Torah that we have kindled, that is to say, when we die, it shall be in sorrow, for we shall no longer be walking in Torah’s light.
A plausible interpretation? Perhaps. I am sure it can be disputed on many levels. The committee that assembled the current JPS translation chose to put a full colon after the first line of the couplet that ends verse 50:11 thusly:
This has come to you from My hand: You shall lie down in pain
though they take great pains to note that the meaning of the final line is uncertain. So assuming a colon is already going out on a limb. If such august personages can go out on a limb, well then, so can I.
How is it even possible for us to walk, as this text suggests, without light? Do we not always walk in the light of Torah, the light of G”d? Why does the prophet admonish us? Why should we not use the gift of knowledge that has been bestowed upon us by G”d? (I find it interesting that in our Jewish creation story, there’s no mention of the gifting of the knowledge to make fire that is so prominent in other mythologies.)
So I am going to walk upstream, against the tide, and be proud of the fact that we are kod’khei eish, kindlers of fire. I will continue to kindle that fire, the fire of Torah that burns from within me, and walk by its light, until the time when I will finally lie down in sorrow. Be a kindler of fire with me . It might not be the negative thing centuries of interpretation have made it out to be. Blaze forth and walk in that light, chaverim!
©2015 (portions ©2006) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
Eikev 5774 The Hills Are Alive (Redux 5773)
Eikev 5773 – The Hills Are Alive
Eikev 5772 – Is El Al Really Doing the Right Thing?
Eikev 5771-Lining Up Alphabetically By Height
Ekev 5770 – For the Good Planet
Ekev 5769-Not Like Egypt
Ekev 5766 – Kod’khei Eish-Kindlers of Fire
Eikev 5765-Are We Forgotten?
Ekev 5764-KaYom HaZeh
Ekev 5760 (from 5759)-Not Holier Than Thou