The haftarah for parashat Shoftim (Isa. 51:12-52:12) is the fourth of seven readings from the prophets that are consecutively read before Rosh Hashanah. These "haftarot of comfort" foretell of the restoration of the Jewish people and of the coming of the Messianic Era. In this week's reading, the LORD promised to personally comfort the Jews and restore the glory of Zion, despite their present suffering and exile:
"It is I, I who comforts you (אָנכִי אָנכִי הוּא מְנַחֶמְכֶם); who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the LORD your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth...?" (Isa. 51:12-13).
Some of the sages note that the first word of the Haftarah, the pronoun anochi (אָנכִי), refers to the LORD as the Compassion Savior (יהוה) rather than as God our Judge. Moreover, the phrase, "the LORD your Maker" (i.e., Adonai Osekha: יהוה עשֶׂךָ) should be regarded as "The LORD who is still making you," because the verb (עָשָׂה) is in the present tense (Hirsch: Chumash). When applied to God, the verb asah ("make") emphasizes fashioning something, and suggests "pressing" or squeezing" an object to form it into shape. In this sense the verb is related to the Hebrew word yetzer ("formed") which refers to something shaped, like pottery fashioned by the hand of a potter. Just as a potter purposes a shape before forming an object, so the LORD forms and fashions the character of the soul according to His sovereign purposes (Gen. 2:7, Isa. 29:16; 64:8; Jer. 18:2-6; Lam. 4:2; Rom. 9:21).
אָנכִי אָנכִי הוּא מְנַחֶמְכֶם מִי־אַתְּ וַתִּירְאִי
מֵאֱנוֹשׁ יָמוּת וּמִבֶּן־אָדָם חָצִיר יִנָּתֵן׃
וַתִּשְׁכַּח יְהוָה עשֶׂךָ נוֹטֶה שָׁמַיִם וְיסֵד אָרֶץ
a·no·chi a·no·chi hu me·na·chem·khem, mi at vat·ti·ri
me·e·nosh ya·mut, u'mi·ben a·dam cha·tzir yin·na·ten?
vat·tish·kach Adonai O·se·kha, no·teh sha·ma·yim ve·yo·sed a·retz
"I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the LORD, your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth."
Despite the national trauma of the destruction of the Temple and exile into Babylon, the LORD reaffirmed His loyal love for Israel: "I am your LORD .... who will firmly establish you. Say to the inhabitants of Zion, 'You are My people'" (Isa. 51:16). "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins (Isa. 40:2). Though the Jews were punished double for their sins, the time will come when Israel's oppressors will drink the "cup of suffering" which they had forced Israel to drink (Isa. 51:22-23).
Though Isaiah spoke of the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile, his prophecy extends to acharit ha-yamim (the End of Days) when the Jews will directly see the return of the glory of the LORD. In the verses which precede this week's haftarah, the Jews had challenged God with the following words: "Wake up! Wake up! clothe Yourself with splendor, O arm of the Lord! Wake up as in days of old, as in former ages!... It was you who dried up the sea" (Isa. 51:9-10). God's response to them echoes their words to Him: "Wake up! Wake up! Zion, Clothe yourself with splendor! Put on your beautiful clothes. O Jerusalem holy city" (this phrase is part of Lecha Dodi which is often sung during kabbalat Shabbat). One day Zion will be dressed in celebratory clothing because the Messiah has redeemed Israel:
Hark! Your watchmen raise their voices, Together they shout for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. (Isa. 52:8)
The phrase "eye to eye" (עַיִן בְּעַיִן) indicates that the Jews will look upon the LORD directly in the eye. In that coming day, the veil will be taken away and we will no longer see through a mirror "in riddles" (ἐν αἰνίγματι), but rather panim el panim, "face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12). Therefore the LORD foretells when the spell of despair is broken: "Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem" (Isa. 52:9). On that great day, all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God (יְשׁוּעַת אֱלהֵינוּ).
The haftarah ends with the promise that just as the LORD was with the Jews during their Egyptian captivity and yet brought them out of slavery by His outstretched arm, so one day they will be restored victoriously in Zion (Isa. 52:12).
"For the Lord will comfort Zion (כִּי־נִחַם יהוה צִיּוֹן); He will comfort all her ruins and will make her desert like Eden, and her wilderness like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isa. 51:3)
The LORD (i.e., Adonai Osekha: יהוה עשֶׂךָ) is still making us, chaverim. "For our light momentary affliction (θλῖψις: oppression, "squeezing" (as of grapes), "tsuris") is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Cor. 4:17). This world is not our home, and we are afflicted with hardship while we sojourn in our exile. Our hearts "groan" (or "sigh," στενάζομεν) to be in heaven with the LORD, though our present state of suffering should be regarded as a temporary and "light" burden that will be fully comforted in the promised world to come. This is part of the promise and hope of Zion. God is still making Israel; the LORD is not finished with the Jewish people. The "princess of Zion" (i.e., sarah, שָׂרָה, an allusion to the innumerable descendants of the great matriarch) will one day be restored (Lam. 1:1). The promise of Zion awaits fulfillment when all the promises given to ethnic Israel will be joyfully fulfilled.
רָנּוּ שָׁמַיִם וְגִילִי אָרֶץ וּפִצְחוּ הָרִים רִנָּה
כִּי־נִחַם יהוה עַמּוֹ וַעֲנִיָּו יְרַחֵם
ran·nu sha·ma·yim ve·gi·li a·retz, u·fitz·chu ha·rim rin·nah,
ki-ni·cham Adonai am·mo va·a·ni·yav ye·ra·chem
"Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted."