It is customary to read chapters 55-56 of Isaiah as the haftarah for Mincha on a public fast day. Asarah B’Teves is no exception. These chapters of Isaiah are a true anthem of teshuvah and repentance, and the immortal words of the prophet therein apply equally to all fast days, and all times of serious introspection and repentance.
The reading for the haftarah begins in the middle of a prophecy with the following famous words:
דִּרְשׁוּ יְ-ה-ה בְּהִמָּצְאוֹ קְרָאֻהוּ בִּהְיוֹתוֹ קָרוֹב׃
Seek the LORD when He can be found; Call to Him when He is near.
Reading this short posuk immediately brings to mind a number of questions: What are we to make of the implication that there are only certain places where God can be found? Are we not all taught from grade school that God can be found everywhere, in all places and at all times, equally? When is God not close? Where can He not be found?
Second, on a more textual level, what is the difference between the first clause of this verse and the second?
The Gemara: A Judgment & Execution
The Gemara (Yevamos 49b) is troubled by our questions. As is known, Isaiah was perhaps the least popular of all the prophets — so much so that his own grandson executed him. The Gemara explains, though, that this was not an execution without reason. Menasheh, the grandson in question, actually rendered a halachic judgment and determined Isaiah to be a false prophet and thus worthy of the death penalty. Why? For the very questions we posed on our verse quoted above! After all, it states explicitly in Deuteronomy (4:7) “For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the LORD our God whenever we call upon Him?” yet Isaiah seems to say that one can only call upon God “when He is close!” For this heretical notion (and others, at least according to Menasheh), Menasheh deemed Isaiah deserving of death.
The Gemara, though, goes on to explain what Isaiah must have meant, delineating between a community and an individual. As a community, God is indeed always equally close and ready to be found. As an individual, however, one is more limited, and there are certainly times that God is closer and more accessible than others. The Gemara states that this time of closeness are the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, also known as the Aseres Yemei HaTeshuvah.
Still, what exactly are we to make of this? Can one only repent during these ten days? Is there really a time of year that heartfelt teshuvah is ineffective?
Communal vs. Personal Prayer
Rambam (and others) take this Gemara literally, and explain that while personal repentance is always a good idea — and can surely never hurt — during the Aseres Yemei HaTeshuvah it is particularly effective, and is/could be accepted by God immediately. Repentance as a community, however, is equally valuable and powerful throughout the entire year.
Indeed, one need not resort to any form of mysticism to explain this concept. A person’s repentance is certainly different and qualitatively superior when it is done communally than when it is performed in isolation. Praying surrounded by people one knows and cares about — and who, in turn, know and care about him — surely leads to a more meaningful and intense form of teshuvah. When all alone, a person can drift astray, with no one he or she feels responsible for, or to.
There Is A Time Too Late
Rashi, though, does not take our Gemara literally. In his commentary to Isaiah 55:6, Rashi explains the words “when God can be found” as meaning “prior to the sealing of the verdict, which is when God tells us to ‘seek Him out’.” This is to say, Isaiah is instructing us to seek God out when He wants us to, not after it is too late. Once a person’s judgment is sealed, prayer and repentance become either somewhat, or entirely, ineffective. There is, at least according to Rashi, a time that is too late for one to repent. Perhaps a person can indeed wait too long; perhaps there is a point from which there is no return.
In both the commentary of Metzudas David and Malbim on this posuk the idea that there are indeed certain times and places when God is closer is echoed. According to them, Isaiah was cautioning the Jews not to wait to call to God from Bavel, post-exile, but to instead call out to Him immediately, when He is closer, there in Israel.
Yes, one can, in theory, call out to God always. But there are certain times when God feels close, or when a person is in an environment particularly conducive to religious experience, and such opportunities should not be wasted. Call out to God when He is close, exclaims the prophet!
Seek God For Closeness
There is still the matter of explaining what precisely the term “בְּהִמָּצְאוֹ” means. Generally, the prefix “בְּ” means “when” or “where,” but there is another equally valid translation: “on behalf of” or “for.” Indeed, in his commentary, Radak explains our verse to mean “Seek the LORD so that He can be found; Call to Him so that He is near.” According to Radak, then, our verse is not telling of a timeframe during which God is especially close, nor an ideal time to seek Him. Rather, it is a prescription for how to bring God close — namely, seek Him out, call to Him, and He shall be close.
The original instance of the root word “seek” is found in Genesis, when Rivkah is pregnant with twins. As they struggled in her womb, she went to seek answers from God:
וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם־כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת־יְ-ה-ה׃
But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to seek of the LORD,
Rashi and Ramban are split on what exactly it means when the Torah says that Rivkah went “to seek” God. Rashi explains it to mean that she went to the house of study of Shem and Ever to inquire of them what the meaning of the struggle in her womb was. Ramban explains it to mean that she prayed to God for an understanding. Whatever really happened, both of these explanations take on far greater significance in light of all that has been discussed above. The Biblical term “to seek out” seems to mean either Torah study or prayer. Thus, when Isaiah tells us “to seek out” God, we should understand that through the study of Torah and prayer Man discovers God.
While most believe that once a person comes to a recognition of and belief in God he or she will then begin to study and pray, the reality is, in fact, to the contrary. Through prayer and study one discovers God. “Seek out God so that He can be found; call to God so that He can be near.” After all, only those who seek shall find.