Isaiah, Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur Sermon 2018: A Eulogy for Isaiah

Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
But life is a journey.
A going, a growing from stage to stage… (poem by Rabbi Alvin Fine).

I am going to tell you about two lives, two journeys. Of the first, we know little – gleaning bits and pieces from the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic tradition. We have the beautifully complex book named after him, which inspired the name of this community nearly three thousand years later. Who was the prophet Isaiah? In asking that question, we may also begin to learn who we are.

And as for Eve, well, we’ll return to her in a moment.

We all begin somewhere. Isaiah is born into the dual lives of palace and prophecy, in the heart of Jerusalem. According to tradition, his father Amotz was the brother of Amatzyah, king of Judah (B. Sotah 10b). This reminds me of identical twins who were in my brother’s grade in school. Their parents had named them Missael and Massael, causing endless consternation. I imagine that as children, Amotz and Amatzyah were similarly confused by many, until of course the day that Amatzyah donned the crown. While his brother became king, Amotz became a prophet (B. Megillah 15a) I imagine that as a child, Isaiah plays in the palace, lives a life of luxury and privilege, and meets the most important dignitaries of the day.

Eve too was born into a life of luxuries, although of a more humble sort. Her father, a baker, worked long hours, but late at night he would return, arms loaded with loaves, calling out and waking Eve and her sisters and brother, who would rush down to delight in the treat. Her mother was a teacher, but frail, and died when Eve was young. Of course this changed the course of Eve’s journey.

Isaiah grows up in the shadow of death as well. After his uncle passes on, his cousin Uzziah becomes king. And in the last year of his cousin’s reign, Isaiah’s life changes forever. Out of nowhere he sees God, sitting on a throne. God’s robes fill the whole temple. Angels are flying above God, with six wings each, calling to each other about God’s holiness. Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of God’s glory! And every time they call, the reverberations shake the pillars of the door, and the room begins to fill with smoke…

Marc Chagall - Isaiah
Marc Chagall

Isaiah , understandably, panics. What a terrifying scene! He cries out, I am unworthy, of unclean lips! But an angel flies to Isaiah, touches him on the lips with a coal from the sacred altar, and tells him, you are no longer unworthy. Suddenly, Isaiah can hear God’s voice, calling out the question: Who shall I send? Emboldened by angelic approval, Isaiah shouts out, “Here I am, send me!” And thus begins the career of the prophet Isaiah. Doubt and courage interwoven, hesitation then initiation – Here I am, send me! (Isaiah 6)

How often does God ask us, who shall I send? And in our fear of being unworthy, we can’t even hear the question?

Eve heard the call to leave loud and clear, when she was much younger than Isaiah. After her mother’s death, her father, a kind and generous man, remarried, and promised everything he had to his new love. Eve did not get along with her new stepmother, and felt removed against her will from her family’s future. At the same time, she had developed breathing problems, and doctors swarmed around her, just as certain in their opinions as those flying winged angels but less prone to being correct, each one trying to heal her failing lungs. One voice, calm and clear, told her she needed to move to a drier climate. With $60 dollars and doubt to spare, she chose courage, and rode the bus west. She was 17 years old.  

Isaiah learns what it means to be a prophet through counseling the new king, Hezekiah. But their relationship quickly breaks down. In their pride of profession, each thinks the other should approach him first. Hezekiah says, a prophet should approach the king, the center of society. And Isaiah says, the king needs my prophecy, let him come to me! Finally God has to get involved, teaching them both a lesson by causing Hezekiah to take ill, and then telling Isaiah to go visit his sick king. And isn’t it true for us too that all too often, it takes an illness to heal a relationship. The king and the prophet unite their families when Hezekiah marries Isaiah’s daughter. The future kings of Judah can proudly count Isaiah as their ancestor. (B. Berachot 10a)

Eve, on the other hand, doubted there would be future descendants to count her as their ancestor. Her illness and her suspicion that she was liable to die at any moment meant she kept a certain distance from family, actual or potential. Then she met Jack. They were both standing in the unemployment line. She said no. Then he worked very hard to charm her until she finally gave him a chance. She worried about loving their two children too blatantly, lest these children who needed her love suddenly found it lost to them forever. But beneath all of the doubts of what would come, love them she did.

Even at the height of our careers, we may struggle with worry and doubt about whether we are really accomplishing the goals that matter most to us. Isaiah writes: I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity… (Isaiah 49:4). Many years have passed, and he has grown old. His grandson Menasheh is now king of Judah. And unlike his predecessors, Menasheh is arrogant, living in the privileges of royalty, not its responsibilities. Isaiah does as a prophet must do, calling out what threatens to undermine a godly society. Menasheh, unrestrained by the honor due his grandfather, seeks to defame Isaiah, to destroy his credibility. And so Isaiah is brought to court. Sensing he will not win the battle, he summons one last burst of strength, utters the divine name, and a tree opens up for him. He steps inside, seals himself away from the astonished guards, and in this way chooses to pass on from life, wrapped in the embrace of God’s majestic creation. (Yevamot 49b)

Birth is a beginning, and death a destination. When Eve died, having journeyed farther than she ever expected, she did not know how she had transformed another journey. She could not have known that some years later, a grandson would discover her Hebrew Bible and take it with him to school, where he would write notes in the margins while studying the book of Isaiah with a beloved professor. 

She could not have known that he would remember her story, and tell it on Kol Nidre, weaving it in with the story of the prophet. On Yom Kippur, we look honestly at our lives, and we grapple with our mortality. What of us will endure?

For Isaiah, his words have endured: poetic and passionate, prophetic and peace-oriented, imaginative, devastating as critique, yet determined ultimately to comfort. In the words of poet Mary Oliver, “Now he is only within the wider, immeasurable world of our thoughts. He lives nowhere but on the page, and in the attentive mind that leans above that page. This has some advantage for us, for he is now the [author] of our choice: he is the man of his own time – his own history – or he is one of the mentors of ours.” (Upstream, p. 65). When we attend to the words on the paper, we can unseal Isaiah from the tree, we can converse with him, ask him questions, weigh his answers. Isaiah once described God’s purpose for him in these terms: “God has made my mouth like a sharp sword, hidden in the shadow of God’s hand; and God has made me a polished arrow shaft, concealed in God’s quiver” (Isaiah 49:2). His words are meant to pierce us, not to destroy us like an enemy but to open us up to vulnerable reflection. We can agree with him, we can challenge him, we can decide to borrow his words for purposes he wouldn’t have dreamed of. As we launch the Year of Isaiah, we will have many opportunities to attend to Isaiah’s words, in a sense to help his prophecies come true if they help us in some way live our lives more kindly, truly, and fully.

The memorial prayer Eil Malei Rachamim tells us that when one dies, one’s soul is bound up bitzror hachayyim, in the bond of life. Our souls will be intimately connected in the world to come. But in our realm, what endure are stories. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that a threefold cord is not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12). With the story of Isaiah, and the story of my grandmother, I’ve shared two strands of the cord. I invite you to add your strands. What personal stories are you ready to weave into Temple Isaiah’s story, binding yourselves brightly into the strong fabric of community, truly a bond of life? Let us gather during this upcoming Year of Isaiah to learn from the prophet Isaiah, to tend to this neighborhood we call Temple Isaiah, and to stand witness to each other’s stories, as members and inheritors of the name Isaiah.

G’mar chatima tova, may we all be sealed for a good life in the year to come.


For more on my grandmother, you can read this spotlight.