I. Recall this piece from Isaiah comes at the time when the prophet is exhorting the people in exile in Babylon to trust in God's saving power to return and restore them to the land.
II. The first verse speaks of God's expectation at the start, yet that verse is an observation that appears in the middle of an important passage in the book of Isaiah. Here it is a prelude, one that previews the conclusion, but one where the “music” in the text of the haftarah moves immediately to an explanation of went wrong or can go wrong. We return, happily, to God's unending expectation and promise. But the ride in the text we study today is bumpy, and for good reason, which is the tension in the study we’ll do.
III. There's the promise, the covenant, and the call. There's the choice of life or death, God's way or the other. There are the consequences. But there's always the path back and God's hope and intention that we take it, that we use the gifts/the blessings, such as the call to be near, as manifested in the portion, as our way of life.
Reading points for Isaiah 43:21-28; 44:1-23:
1 Read 43:21.
a. For whom are we here?
(Crucial: these people were formed FOR God. Once we forget that or think that we exist for our own purposes or for some other reasons, we are lost; we are abandoned.)
b. What does God expect from us?
(to declare God's praise.)
2. Read 22-24.
a. And instead of offering praise to God, what did the people do instead that led to their exile?
(We have a definition of what an offering really means! Praise of God.
Praise is manifested through coming near to God with offerings brought with love and intention and living in the Way expected by God. Instead the people did not come near but rather lived in iniquity. This is just the opposite of the life expected, really a denial of the gift with which God blessed them and us in the Torah portion.
This haftarah, thus, is a companion piece to the portion to show us where the story goes when we fall into self-centered living in lieu of God-centered living. This shows us how we stray and disavow or avoid God's call and blessing that are offered to us in the portion itself.)
b. Note the word play: God has not burdened us with offerings, yet we have burdened Him with sins. The Hebrew words, he-evaditikha and he-evadtani, play off of avad, which means to serve religiously. It's a pun, a sad pun, really. What should be service given gratefully as God expects becomes a matter of a burden neither understood nor assumed, leading to iniquity. And all of this becomes a burden (not service, not praise) to God.
c. It's possible that since the people are no longer in the Promised Land they can't offer, and God does not expect, offerings. Indeed it could be they're simply not even doing or giving the minimum. Or else this refers to the past when they were in the land and were unmindful and neglectful.
3. Read 25 - What does God propose?
(Essentially, we were given the means by God to come near to live in God's way and to wipe away our straying (through the path defined in Vayikra and in other mitzvot). We were given the path. Even though we strayed, God always seeks our return to the path. If we choose not to do so, we leave it to God to wipe them away.)
4. Read 26-28 - What's God done, and yet what's God still inviting?
(God imposed consequences, as we studied in Isaiah, that led to the exile, for the persistent waywardness that began with our early ancestor and continued through bad leaders and false prophets. We will later see in this text what God believes to be the source of our proclivity to waywardness and its remedy.
But God always invites a return and does so here to the remnant. As God invited Abraham to make the case, the door is always open for our return. God always seeks to be merciful. We should take Him up on it, rather than acting contemptuously.)
5. Read 44:1-5.
a. Let's break this down. What is meant by 1-2?
(God created us for a purpose, which will be fulfilled. We were made, chosen, and helped from our birth (as a people and as individual persons).
b. Look at 3 and 4. What's the relationship of this metaphor to the portion?
(The promise of God's call, availability to be near, and the means for us to come forward and offer and draw close - all of this, along with God's word and our covenant - these are the means by which the Hebrew Bible teaches our "thirsty soul" is watered and our needs (dry ground) receive "rain."
This nearness is how God's spirit pours on us, how we are blessed. This nourishes us like "willows by watercourses." (Ah, the poetry!)
c. And 5?
(Identity is a threefold connection for the people: possessed by and serving God, a descendant (physically and/or spiritually of Jacob), OR one who comes to God as a servant and who "adopts" the name of Israel (one who wrestles with God, remember?). See how the whole community of God fits in in one way or another here?
6. Read 6-8.
a. How does God Self-define?
(Adonai, Melech of Israel, their Redeemer (as in one who redeems a kinsman who has fallen in debt or into slavery!), the first and last and the only, the One alone who can guide and lead us. But, especially, the One who told us to be strong in faith, who revealed truth to us for us to foretell the future to the world!)
b. And who are we in the story?
(We are witnesses to this, which means both that we have no basis other than we know it to be true and to be true to God's expectations.
Now look back at Lev. 5:1. Read it. Significance?
(Here is the responsibility of the witness! We are dutibound to "testify" and "give the information" to the world that we "heard" as "a public imprecation." So, looking back at 43:26, we get the sense of those words. We're to "tell" our "vision," so that we "may be vindicated." God depends on us to be true witnesses. The Divine plan requires it, as does our salvation.
There's a softness, a mercy in the God Isaiah shows us, isn't there? Yes, indeed, God can and does impose consequences. But God is aware of our power to choose. God beseechs us to choose the good, to be true witnesses, to respond to His mercy, and return to the ways He has shown us, which are the pleasant paths revealed in Torah.)
7. Read all of 9-20.
What does this mean, and why the long elaboration? Meaning to you of the whole or pieces of this?
(Don't you think it's likely an account of the ways in which people fall off the path? Isn't it idolatry in one form or another, with a range of vocations from which one can get the inspiration to worship the created thing? And isn't this the narrative of where we go instead of to "sacred space?")
8. Read 21-23.
We are servants of the one God, not created things or those who make the created things! We must always remember and act from this truth. God "wipes away" our sins and transgressions. Isn't that we have begun to learn in Vayikra?
We are to come back to God to be redeemed. Isn't what we learned in Vayikra, that God calls us to come and be near God, our Redeemer? This coming near and living in covenant with God is our path, not falling back on the easy tendency to be devoted to the material, to the created thing in league with the human makers of created things.
There is no greater joy in the world than God's saving us and that God's glory is manifested through us.