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In times like these, it pays to heed the prophet Isaiah’s message

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The Judean Desert | Photo: Amit Lahav

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It’s been a few months but it seems like an eternity. We’ve been kept indoors, and isolated from one  another. We’ve experienced a gamut of emotions, from fear, boredom and frustration, to some satisfaction that we can master new technologies such as Zoom. We worry about investments and job security, and we fear the inevitable taxation hikes to pay for all the temporary relief. We wonder when the lockdown will end, and how. Post coronavirus, what will the world look like?

As Jews, this is not our first experience with a prolonged lockdown. Some 130 generations ago our ancestors experienced “the Babylonian Captivity.” Jerusalem’s elite and the Kingdom of Judah were exiled to Iraq, hundreds of miles away, into communities nestled between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The deportations started in 597 BCE, with several others a decade later.

It was a crushing blow to the small Jewish kingdom surrounded by the mighty Babylonian Empire. The Davidic monarchy came to an end. The last King of Judah, Zedekiah, was captured, blinded and exiled, but not before witnessing his sons executed.

Perhaps 25 per cent of the population were marched into Babylonia, away from their families and religious institutions. These sentiments of loss are reflected in Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.” Other exiles seemed to fare well. The Murashu tablets indicate that some of the deported became wealthy in spite of restrictions on their movements and activities.

Back in Jerusalem, however, things were dreadful. Perhaps the saddest book of the Bible is Lamentations, five poems that reflect atrocious conditions in that city under Babylonian rule. Lamentations is not a work for the faint-hearted. Picturing Jerusalem as a widow, the desolate city is in mourning. Conditions are extremely harsh. People have exchanged their treasures for food. The Temple was desecrated. There were no pilgrims, no tourist trade and thus no commerce. Theologically the writer envisages God mocked by the nations of the world. Speaking of Jerusalem, he painfully asks, “All who pass along the road – Look about and see: Is there any agony like mine?” (Lamentations 1:12). Jackals invaded the city. Women were raped. And there seemed to be no hope, no sense of a better future.

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In the depths of despair, the poet ends on a nasty note, accusing God of having rejected his people – “You have rejected us, bitterly raged against us.” (Lamentations 5:22). Pulling back a bit, he pleads, “Renew our days as of old.”

The lockdown lasted 58 years until 539 BCE when Cyrus, King of Persia, conquered the Babylonian Empire and allowed the exiles to return. But that’s not the end of the story. Writing around the time of Cyrus’ edict, Chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah are devoted to painting a wonderful panorama. This prophet is euphoric in his portrayal of a wonderful era post lockdown. The future is absolutely marvellous. The exiles, he thinks, should prepare to leave the lockdown, go home, and enjoy a spectacular new era in human history.

James Tissot’s “The Flight of the Prisoners” which depicts the Jewish exlie from Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire | Photo: The Jewish Museum

“Clear in the desert,” he proclaims, “a road for the Lord!” (Isaiah 40:3). Metaphorically, valleys will be raised and hills lowered so that those in lockdown can return home. The path there will be easy and the future bright. Leaders of countries will take notice and wonder how this amazing turnaround occurred. It is to Isaiah that we owe the description of the community of Israel as a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6). Israel is God’s servant nation, a country on a divinely-mandated mission.

The first Jewish lockdown came to an end. After 58 long years, some exiles trekked back to Jerusalem to rebuild the economy. That’s one view. Others contend the lockdown didn’t end until 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel, a much longer lockdown we call the Diaspora. Isaiah’s optimistic message had to be tempered with the realities following several generations under lockdown. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah give us the realpolitik of life post captivity. The city was in shambles. Houses were expropriated. City walls needed repair. Traditions were abandoned. The Temple needed rebuilding.

However, the message of Isaiah is encouraging for those of us living in the midst of life with restrictions. The future will be bright.

But it will be different.

An award-winning teacher, Barrie Wilson PhD is Professor Emeritus & Senior Scholar, Humanities and Religious Studies, York University. He has taught courses on Introduction to the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Christianity, Jesus and Paul. His bestselling book, How Jesus Became Christian (2008) received the Joseph and Faye Tanenbaum Prize for History at the 2009 Canadian Jewish Book Awards. Appearances on several episodes of The Naked Archeologist followed along with many documentaries. Appropriate for these turbulent times, his new book – Searching for the Messiah — will be published in Canada and the USA in August. Barrie is a member of Beth-Tzedec Congregation, Toronto.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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