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Shabbat Parashat Devarim 5780

Parashat Hashavua: Silence is Proper for the Wise and Sometimes for Prophets

Harav Yosef Carmel

The pasuk that opens the haftara and is the headline for all of Sefer Yeshayahu places Yeshayahu at the time of four kings of Judea, starting with Uziyahu. Yeshayahu’s first prophecy, covering the first six chapters, was given at the time of the traumatic earthquake during Uziyahu’s reign and the latter’s leprosy. The second prophecy (ch. 7) was given in the fourth year of the reign of Achaz (Seder Olam Rabba 22), 20 years later.    

What happened in the meantime? Later in our haftara, Yeshayahu said: “Woe unto me for nidmeiti” (Yeshayahu 6:5). The expression nidmeiti is found only this one time in Tanach, and so it is not surprising that many meanings have been suggested. Targum Yonatan posits that it means that he was worthy of rebuke, although the etymological connection is hard to discern (perhaps for this reason, Rashi does not cite it). Rashi explains that Yeshayahu felt that he should die because he saw the “face of the Divine Presence” (Shoftim 13:22). He supports this idea with the fact that Manoach thought he would die for seeing something divine and from the fact that in Tzefania (1:11) the root is used as a parallel to nichrat (uprooted). The Radak agrees with Rashi regarding content, although he brings an etymological connection from elsewhere (Hoshea 10:15).

The Pesikta (Pesikta Rabbati 33) says that nidmeiti is from the root damom (like the word dumiya) and expounds as follows: “I saw things that are impossible to see and still live, and yet I saw and did live. Should I not have added my praise to that of the ministerial angels?! If I had joined my praise with theirs, I would have lived forever like them. How could it be that I was silent?” According to this approach, this silence was behind a failure that we will soon discuss. 

According to this approach, it is possible that Yeshayahu was so shaken by the power of what he saw (the divine revelation of the ma’aseh hamerkava) that he was unable to speak. We find a similar phenomenon regarding Yechezkel, who, after his initial prophecy, was told: “I will glue your tongue to your pallet, and you will be mute” (Yechezkel 3:26). There is little option but to say that Yeshayahu was silent during this whole time due to the unprecedented prophecy of the ma’aseh hamerkava. Amos began prophesying two years before the ra’ash (literally, earthquake) (see Amos 1:1), and almost his whole prophecy was focused on it. He describes the ra’ash with similar words to those of Yeshayahu, and proclaims, “I have seen Hashem” (ibid. 9:1). This vision concludes his book and perhaps his period as a prophet, due to the awe-stricken silence it brought on. We find something similar regarding Michayahu (Melachim I, 22:19).

Therefore, we can summarize that sometimes the silence of prophets is a natural response to the loftiness of their prophetic vision. Let us pray that we will all internalize that “there is a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Kohelet 3:7). (An expansion of this theme can be found in my book Tzofnat Yeshayahu.)

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