This week’s haftara is the only one read on two occasions during the year, not on a holiday or Rosh Chodesh. We read it after Parshat Noach and now as the fifth of the haftarot of consolation. Ashkenazim who read the haftara for Rosh Chodesh two weeks ago will also probably read the third haftara of consolation which follows directly on the text of this one.
At the beginning of our haftara, the navi Yeshayahu likens Yerushalayim to a barren woman, telling her that she should rejoice. Radak on this pasuk compares it to the beginning of Eicha where Yerushalayim is compared to a widow. “Like a widow,” Radak points out the language of the pasuk there: She is not a widow, her husband still lives – it just seems that way in the moment. So too, Yerushalayim is childless but she will not remain so. Malbim on this pasuk says that she should rejoice because she will become a mother without the travails of childbirth. He follows Chazal in comparing these to the battles of warriors in the field and points out that Yerushalayim will be spared the experience of the terrible wars and struggles to precede the final redemption. She will experience the return of her children to her – the birth, as it were, of a great nation. But she will not have to suffer in the process.
Radak also learns from the Targum on this verse that there is additionally a veiled threat to the descendants of Yishmael. He explains that although in the era preceding the final redemption it will seem as though Yishmael has sovereignty over the Land of Israel and its inhabitants, the former will be exposed as subservient to Esav. Thus in time the Yishmaelites who oppress and rule over the Jews of the Middle East will be overthrown by Europeans who are the truly dominant power.
The Gemara in Brachot (10a) speaks of the sharp wit of Bruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, in dispensing with heretics. One such individual approached her to ask mockingly of this pasuk from our haftara. “Why would the barren woman rejoice in her childlessness?” he asks. Bruriah responds that he is a fool for not bothering to finish reading the pasuk – the children who will be born to the one who appears to be abandoned will be preferable to those of the wedded woman. The wedded woman here represents the nations of the world who are great multitudes, seemingly enjoying the world as Israel languishes and suffers. But the children of Israel are not doomed to a future in the pit of Gehennom as are these others and especially the one who is asking the foolish questions.
R’ Chaim of Baghdad, the Ben Ish Chai, looks deeper into this story. He follows Radak in noting that the barren woman, Yerushalayim, will not have to suffer to become a mother. But he puzzles over Bruriah’s implication that the children of Israel will not be subject to the torments of Gehennom. Are there not wicked people among Israel? In fact Bruriah’s interlocutor here is described as a heretic (min), not an idolater. Probably he himself is of Jewish extraction and she has condemned him to Gehennom! The Ben Ish Chai explains that without the Torah, the nations of the world have no way to improve their spiritual outcomes so they are bound to an unhappy end unless they are very righteous and noble. Furthermore, they come from a root of spiritual corruption so that Gehennom is their natural state unless they improve themselves thus.
But the people of Israel are born of the seed of Avraham and Sarah; they are born pure and holy. They might corrupt themselves by their actions and decisions and doom themselves to an unpleasant process of purgation before they can return to their pure spiritual roots. However, their proper home is Yerushalayim, below as above, and this is much preferable to their mother than those other children who were born into impurity.