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Sunday, 16 April 2017

“Are We the Messiah?” – a Reflection on Isaiah 11, and Other Related Matters

How do we retain our sense of hopefulness when so much of what we see around us seems frightening or bleak? One of the texts we read during the Passover/Pesach period is from the prophet Isaiah. I want to unpack its imagery and see whether it has anything to say to us in our current predicaments.

The chapter starts with an image of new growth emerging: ‘A shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, a twig shall sprout from his stock’ (11:1). ‘The stump of Jesse’ is an image of kingship – King David and his heirs were from the family of Jesse – so the poet Isaiah is talking about a renewal of hope in a wise leader, an inspired leader  -‘the spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him’ (verse 2).

And the picture is developed into a portrait of an idealised figure, leading the community, a messianic figure filled with ‘a spirit of wisdom and insight’, the text says, ‘counsel and valour’, combining a ‘spirit of devotion and reverence’ for God with perhaps the most important attribute of all, a passion for ‘justice’ (verses 2-4).  
He won’t judge just by ‘what his eyes behold’; he won’t make decisions just by ‘what his ears perceive’ (verse 3) – in other words this is leadership based not on a Trump-like immediacy (what’s  in front of his eyes on the television,  or what he’s told by someone else),  but through his capacity to see beyond the superficial and the immediate and act with justice for the poor and the lowly, the have-nots.

‘Justice shall be the girdle of his loins’ (verse 5) – a fine image, an image of potency:  true potency is a passion for justice, says Isaiah. And that applies to everyone, not just leaders.

Why do we read this text on Passover? There’s another prophetic text we also use at this season, from the book of Ezekiel: the famous image of the valley of the dry bones that come back to life (chapter 37); it’s a symbol of national renewal that was composed during the exile in Babylon. The prophet is offering hope to his people in dark times.  He imagines  the people of Israel revived, regenerated, with a new spirit – there will be  a second exodus, promises Ezekiel. And that’s what happened.  The exile ended. People went back to the land, rebuilt the Temple. 

But centuries later, when it came to the period of the rabbis, they were once more living in a time of exile and diaspora, after the destruction of the second Temple. And they are the ones who decreed that at this festival we should read Ezekiel, the prophet who offered hope when things looked bleak. There’s always a need for sources of hope and inspiration in dark times.

The Isaiah text is also about hope for the future.  We have the picture of the  wise leader who will emerge and lead the people with justice and insight. And then the text goes on to develop a series of images that have become famous, understandably: the images move from those of an idealised leader to those that describe an idealised time in the future. The imagery draws on the animal kingdom, and it pictures natural predators and their prey brought together – but without harm being done: it’s an imagined time when ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb’, ‘the leopard lie down with the kid’, ‘the calf and the young lion shall feed together...and a little child shall lead them’ (verse 6).

And the poet Isaiah finds multiple images to talk about a future world in which aggression won’t disappear - but it won’t be destructive: the cow and the bear shall graze together, the lion like the ox will eat straw, babies and young children will be able to play in the vicinity of vipers and adders, ‘for they shall not hurt and destroy in all my holy mountain’ (verses 7-9). But who is ‘they’? When Isaiah says ‘they’ he doesn’t just mean that the animal kingdom won’t hurt or destroy, but the human world, people, will no longer hurt or destroy, will no longer allow their innate aggression to win out over their innocence and their vulnerability.

This imagery has entered the human imagination in the Western world, through Judaism then Christianity. Isaiah’s vision became a picture of messianic hopefulness, a portrait of a wished-for time – far off in the future – when ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as waters cover the sea’(verse 9). It’s a utopian vision – a world of harmony, understanding, peace, justice, a world where people don’t act out their animal natures, their aggression, their hostility to others who aren’t like them, their wish to make victims of those who are different, their urge to tear others limb from limb. A world  where the natural playfulness of children, the innocence of the baby, the vulnerability of the infant will be present and allowed to have space in adult life – playfulness, simplicity of feeling, vulnerability are qualities in all of us, not just in children and infants.

Isaiah’s utopian vision offers a portrait of a world where these qualities can be present in us, rather than suppressed out of fear - expressed openly  because we won’t have to protect ourselves, defend ourselves, from the hostility and envy of others seeking our harm.

What do we feel when we read this vision? Have we stopped believing in this vision? Have we ever believed in it? Are we now too knowing, too canny, too shrewd, too cynical, too world-weary, too dulled to the cycle of ever-renewed then ever-dashed hopefulness to carry the candle for this kind of messianic hopefulness? A world of justice, and personal liberation from our fearfulness. Is this Biblical fantasy still inspiring? Or does it just make us sad as we see how far away we are from it? And always might be.

Jewish and Christian tradition has always held out this kind of hopefulness – dangling in front of us these wondrous, imaginative texts with their fantastical images. They might inspire us not to succumb to despair; they might help us renew our confidence that things can only get better, that things will turn out for the best, in the end, in the long run, in the very long run; these texts might continually provoke us to keep on believing that human nature is capable of change, that human aggression won’t continue to ‘hurt and destroy’.

But if they do provoke us into keeping our hope alive it means we have to go beyond what ‘our eyes perceive and our ears behold’. Because what our eyes perceive and our ears behold  is that we are a destructive species. Aggression is soldered to the human soul  and it always accompanies our heart’s finer qualities, our extraordinary creativity and goodness and capacity for transforming our world for the better. This text is a suitable one for Passover/Pesach , because this is the festival when we celebrate the possibility that we can be freed from living under the oppressive weigh of tyranny. The tyranny of human aggression – and we are both the victims of aggression and the perpetrators of aggression – is something we have to free ourselves from over and over again.

We know how hard it is to change our aggression into love, and how hard it is for societies to stop producing victims (economic, social, political).As the years go on do we not secretly fear that in the long arc of human history, aggression and destructiveness might win out over human creativity and kindness? Can we retain our utopian hopefulness – or do we fear being crushed by our dystopian fears and nightmares?

You see, we can’t escape the wolf and the leopard, the lion and the viper within us, with their natural aggression. It is an inevitable part of our humanity. Another Isaiah, our late British Jewish public intellectual, Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), was fond of quoting the philosopher  Immanuel Kant: ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ 

Berlin was an anti-utopian. He saw how frequently utopian visions, whether they were religious or secular, so often ended up wreaking destruction in the attempt to create the messianic vision of a better, more just society. Revolutionary socialism ended up with the gulags, fascism with the concentration camps, Maoism in mass starvation in which millions died. Free-market individualism ends up with austerity, hardship and increased levels of poverty. Everywhere you look you see how utopianism  - the wish for a transformed society – comes up against the knotted nature of the crooked timber of humanity, and crashes and burns. Isis is another example, the latest version of a very long line of visions of utopianism gone wrong. 

All those ideological groups throughout history were trying to straighten out the knots within human nature without realising that they themselves were part of the problem; indeed those who are most passionate about undoing the crookedness in society and in other people are often quite blind to their own crookedness. If you want a case study, just look at the White House.

So how can this knowledge help us as we read Isaiah’s text brimming full of hopefulness for a world transformed, filled with justice, where hurt and destruction rule no longer?  Maybe we need to stop reading our texts as describing an outer world. Maybe it’s more helpful to read them as texts which imaginatively address our inner worlds. How do we make our wolf and our lamb rest easily with each other?  our urge to devour and possess co-exist with our gentleness and modesty?  Both sides of our natures are real.  How do we make our leopard lie with our inner kid? our biting sarcasm and capacity to hurt: how can it co-exist in harmony with our playfulness and innocence?

Maybe we need to start reading our texts on this festival of freedom as a series of psychological and spiritual exercises and adventures. Where is our inner child who can lead our inner lion – our pride or our fury, the way we pounce on things, tear a strip off others, tear into ourselves? Where is the inner child we have trapped in us, the part of us that can be wide-eyed with wonder and endless curious and endlessly inventive? Where is that part of us that believes in justice, that can promote justice? Rather than project it onto some idealised figure in the future, how about recognising that we have that potential grafted to our souls – to act with justice, to speak about justice, to bring more justice to the poor and the deprived. Let’s look into these ‘messianic’ texts as if they are mirrors: and realise that they are not only speaking to us, they are speaking about us. About our potential.

This festival where freedom is the leading motif – let’s allow it to speak to us about our freedom to be imaginative in our relationship to our tradition, to be playful, to read these stories and images in new ways.

Elijah’s chair at our seder is not only a symbol of the hope for the future. The cup of Elijah is not just about something delayed and distant. Elijah is brought into the seder to announce : the messianic is here and now, it’s present, it’s in us. It’s not out there, it’s in here, in our hearts and mouths to do it and speak it. Each of us has an element of the Messiah within us: our job is to nurture it, develop it, express it, live it.

Passover/Pesach encourages us to free up the Messiah within us, to let it out, release it. Be kind, be generous, be compassionate, be just – this is how you express your inner Messiah. It’s everyday stuff, small scale stuff - but it’s huge. It’s our humble contribution to Isaiah’s lofty vision.
[Based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, April 15th, 2017]