This week’s haftorah reveals to us the unlimited potential of of the Jewish soul. The prophet Yeshaya shares with us his astounding vision of Hashem’s throne of glory. He says, “Fiery angels stand before Hashem in service … They call to one another and say in unison, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is Hashem the master of the legions whose glory fills the entire world’” (6:2,3) Yeshaya saw one of the loftiest visions ever to be seen by man and responded in the following manner, “Woe to me for I remained silent because I am a man of impure lips…and my eyes beheld the Divine Presence itself.” (6:5) This verse displays Yeshaya’s humble response to his awesome experience feeling unworthy of catching the faintest glimpse of Hashem’s magnificent glory. Yet, Yeshaya was troubled by his personal silence during those lofty moments unable to participate in the angels’ glorious praise. (see Radak ad loc) He attributed this to his personal imperfection and inadequacy. Apparently, his speech was impure and sinful and rendered him unworthy of uttering a sound in Hashem’s holy presence.
The vision continued and Hashem commanded one of His fiery angels to deliver Yeshaya a burning coal. Yeshaya said, “And with tongs the angel removed the coal from the altar, touched my mouth and said…’Your sin is removed and your error forgiven.’” (6:6,7) Immediately following this, Hashem asked, “Whom shall I send?” and Yeshaya responded and said, “Here I am; send me.” (6:8) Yeshaya’s awesome vision together with his humble response initiated him into prophecy. After this initial cleansing, he became worthy of transmitting Hashem’s penetrating message to His people. In addition, Yeshaya’s cleansing process allowed him to join the ranks of the angels and converse with Hashem in His actual presence. (Radak ad loc)
This intriguing incident suggests the unthinkable, that man can rise to the lofty status of Heavenly beings. Although Yeshaya was privy to the inner most levels of spirituality he sensed his mortality and felt unworthy of associating with such elevated levels of holiness. Alas, he was a human being and not a spiritual entity. He identified with impurity and sin and didn’t deserve to see such revelations or sing Heavenly praises. Hashem revealed Yeshaya that he had the potential and after minor refinement he would personally attain those lofty levels. Interestingly, when we reflect upon this incident we tend to side with Yeshaya. We also wonder, “What position does an impure mortal occupy amongst Heavenly angels?” How could man even consider participating in Heavenly praise? Although angels reflect Hashem’s glory what can be said about man?! The answer to these is found in the essential discussion of mortality between Hashem and the angels. The Sages relate that the angels complained to Hashem when He chose to share His precious Torah with His people. They argued, “Your glory (Your Torah) should remain among the Heavenly beings. They are holy and Your Torah is holy, they are pure and Your Torah is pure and they are everlasting and Your Torah is also.” Hashem responded that the Torah could not remain amongst them because they are perfect spiritual beings with no mortality, impurity or illness. Hashem’s true glory would ultimately come from man plagued by impurity and mortality. (Midrash Shochar Tov 8) This response also troubles us because, in truth, we side with the angels. Isn’t perfect fulfillment of Hashem’s will the greatest tribute to His honor? What could be more glorious than the angels’ purest praises? How could mortality and impurity serve as positive factors in Hashem’s ultimate glory?
The Sages’ words in this week’s haftorah provide deep insight into this. Rashi reflects upon the burning coal and notes that the fiery angel held it with tongs. This suggests that the coal’s heat was too intense for an angel to hold. Surprisingly however, Yeshaya’s lip endured direct contact with the coal without being harmed. Rashi quotes the Sages who explain a human being’s potential truly surpasses the status of an angel. They support this with a verse in Yoel that says, “For His camp is massive but mightier are those who do His word.” (Yoel 2:11) Chazal interpret Hashem’s massive camp to refer to His angels and those who fulfill His word to refer to His prophets. This teaches us that, in truth, a devout prophet is greater than an angel. (Rashi 6:7 from Midrash Tanchuma)
The upshot of this is based on man’s equal ability to obey or disobey Hashem. An angel’s clear perception of Hashem basically leaves no room for anything but perfect behavior. Man, on the other hand, is plagued by impurity, weakness and temptation. His perfect adherence to Hashem’s will is undoubtedly true testimony to Hashem’s greatness. Man’s absolute negation for Hashem’s sake displays the true power of His word. The spiritual ascent of a prophet proves that free thinking man can be so subservient to his master that he transcends all physical barriers. Maimonides explains that the basic qualifications of any prophet demand full control over all passions and emotions never succumbing to any physical desire. After achieving this he continues to detach himself from worldly matters totally focusing his mind on spirituality while training it never to stray into frivolity or vanity. He continues developing until his mind becomes transfixed on Hashem’s innermost secrets thus deeming one worthy of Hashem’s contact. During prophecy one realizes that he transcended all human barriers and joined the ranks of the angels. (see Rambam Yesodei HaTorah 7:1) This incredible accomplishment by man supersedes indeed the Heavenly angels even during their loftiest praises to Hashem. Man, unlike angel, begins far from perfect but can actually refine himself and attain the spirituality of the Heavenly hosts themselves. We now understand that the human being sings the “praise of all praises” through his enormous efforts overcoming his human imperfections. Yeshaya originally felt unworthy of participating in the Heavenly display of Hashem’s glory due to his human limitations and imperfections. Hashem responded that his conscious decision to totally subject himself to Hashem’s will surpassed the Heavenly praise. Once Yeshaya’s personal speech was totally cleansed he was worthy of participating in the loftiest of all praises. He could now speak in Hashem’s presence and even rise above the angels and display, through his total subservience, Hashem’s greatest honor.
This lesson has great bearing on our times. Chafetz Chaim raises the classic concern how the latest generations consider meriting the advent of Mashiach? If previous generations who were undoubtedly more pious than ours did not merit Mashiach how could our shameful generation merit him? Chafetz Chaim answers that, on the contrary, no generation ever qualified for Mashiach as much as ours. He explains that in previous times Mitzva observance was, basically, a foregone conclusion. It did not require endless self sacrifice and had therefore had relatively limited value. In our days, however, foreign influences are so rampant that even basic Mitzva observance requires tremendous devotion and sacrifice. In present times, we may add, morality has fallen so low that attaining any level of purity and self negation is a tremendous accomplishment. In this light every mitzva has such great value that we, above all, display Hashem’s greatest glory. Hashem undoubtedly tells His angels, “Look at My people who manage to remain moral and pure even in their corrupt and free thinking environment.” “Can anyone bring Me greater glory than them?!”
Rabbi Dovid Siegel is Rosh Kollel of Kollel Toras Chaim, Kiryat Sefer, Israel