“In the year of King Uziyahu’s death, I saw my Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the trim of His robes filled the Temple sanctuary. Fiery angels were standing above Him, each and every one with six wings; with two he’d cover his face; with two he’d cover his legs; and with two he would fly. And each called to the other, “Holy! Holy! Holy is Hashem of Hosts! All the world is filled with His glory!”
Yeshayahu’s outstanding prophetic vision – his first – is the haftara this week and forms a major part of our liturgy. Whenever we wish to declare G-d’s uniqueness, we also exclaim, like the angels in this vision, that kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, G-d is Holy! Holy! Holy!
Yet, we do not often think of the ensuing passage, though it is not only fascinating but deeply important. In fact, it sheds a necessary light on our Torah reading and reveals something we must appreciate as we read the portion that includes the Aseret haDibrot.
Notwithstanding the unique status of the Sinaitic revelation, we must note the strong parallel between it and Yeshayahu’s prophecy. Both are, of course, major prophetic revelations. Second, Sinai is noisy and covered with smoke (Ex. 19:16); so too, with the Temple in Yeshayahu’s vision (Is. 6:4). The people of Israel are called upon to represent G-d in this world (19:6), Yeshayahu is called upon to do the same (Is. 6:8). Last, the “people in the camp trembled” (Ex. 19:16). Yeshayahu likewise found himself terrified:
“And I said – I despair! I am going to die because I am a man of unclean lips and I live amongst a people of unclean lips! Because I have seen the King, my eyes have seen Hashem of Host.” (Is. 6:5).
This terror seems to accompany the fact that Yeshayahu senses that he is to be sent on an important mission and, in fact, waits hopefully to be asked. Thus, when Hashem says “Who can I send? Who will go for us?” Yeshayahu eagerly responds, “Here I am. Send me!” (Is. 6:8).
This combination of eagerness for greatness combined with a terrible feeling of smallness seems to be what the people of Israel experience as well. On the one hand, they must feel incredible excitement about the special role they will soon play. As we mentioned last week, they are to be a kingdom of priests, meaning, they will model for all others how G-d wishes for human beings to live. At the same time, when they hear the sound of the great shofar at Sinai, the people “tremble.”
We can readily understand their conflicted feelings. Responsibility can inspire not only a sense of pride as well as a fear of being found inadequate, not up to the task, a moral fraud. We all live with these feelings at one time or another and when we find that others trust in us and rely on us, we may experience an inflated sense of self-worth as well as an imposter syndrome in a roller coaster of uncomfortable and sometimes confusing emotions.
Indeed, to be Jewish is to have the mystifying role of having to represent the Creator of all to His creatures, to share His vision with them, to live according to it and explain its benefits when relevant. Some people find that this feeds their ego; others cower, finding it impossible that we could ever measure up to such an elevated task. Many of us do both.
It may be comforting to us that our ancestors contended with this exact same challenge. Even more comforting is the fact that Yeshayahu is reassured that he will be able to perform his task.
As you recall, he worried specifically about being a man of unclean lips among people with unclean lips. How did this man get the courage to speak up and volunteer himself as the unique messenger of the Almighty?
“Then one of the seraphim flew towards me and he had a hot coal in his hand; he had taken it with tongs from on top of the altar. And he touched my mouth with it and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your sin has been taken away, and your sin has been expiated.”
Yeshayahu understands that the burning coal serves as a permission to speak up; he can volunteer for G-d. For us, of course, Torah, living according to it, and engaging in repentance are the things that allow us to speak up. Torah makes us worthy, improves our behavior, and thus enables us to remove our sins as well.
We should be wary of representing G-d. It is only reasonable to worry that we cannot be up to the task. Yet, there is a glowing coal, received at Sinai, that allows us to clean ourselves and do the work of the Almighty. We should recognize our smallness and then, having taken advantage of Divine assistance, we should get on with the work of greatness.