The first is that they were all prophets of hope. Even in their darkest moments they were able to see through the clouds of disaster to the clear sky beyond. They were not optimists. There is a difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough together we can make things better. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it needs courage, wisdom, a deep understanding of history and possibility, and the ability to communicate, to be a prophet of hope. That is what Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah all were. Here is Moses:
When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart…. then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. (Deut. 30: 1-4)
Here is Isaiah:
I will restore your leaders as in days of old, your rulers as at the beginning. Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.” (Isaiah 1: 26)
And this is Jeremiah:
This is what the Lord says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” says the Lord. “They will return from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your descendants,” says the Lord. “Your children will return to their land.” (Jer. 31: 15-16)
The point about all three of these prophecies is that they were delivered knowing that bad things were about to happen to the Jewish people. They are not easy hope; they express hope rescued from the valley of despair.
The second characteristic that made Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah different was that they delivered their criticism in love. Isaiah said in the name of God perhaps the loveliest words ever spoken to the Jewish people: “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, My unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor My covenant of peace be removed” (Isaiah 54: 10). Jeremiah, in the midst of his critique of the nation, said in the name of God, “I remember the kindness of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed Me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jer. 2: 2).
Moses’ love for the people was evident in every prayer he said on their behalf, especially after they had made the golden calf. On that occasion he said to God: “Now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Ex. 32: ). He was prepared to give his life for his people. It is easy to be a critic, but the only effective critics are those who truly love – and show they love – those whom they criticize.
Third, Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah were the three prophets who, more than any others, spoke about the role of Jews and Israel in the context of humanity as a whole. Moses said, Keep the commands “for they are your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations” (Deut. 4: 6).
Isaiah said in God’s name: “You are my witnesses … that I am God.” (Isaiah 43: 12), and “I created you and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations, opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (42: 6-7).
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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