July 24, 2004
Isaiah’s message in this week’s special haftarah, read yearly on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, is one of total alienation between God and the children of Israel. This break was brought on not only by the people’s disloyalty to God but more importantly, in God’s eyes, by the people’s unconscionable behavior. God will not consider any mechanical attempts at reconciliation: “And when you lift up your hands I [God] will turn My eyes away from you; though you pray at length I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime [literally: blood]. Wash yourselves clean. Put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of orphans. Defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:15-17)
The essence of Isaiah’s message seems to be that God rejects the hypocrisy of raising sinful hands before God in prayer. As Rabbi Joseph Kaspi (11th century France) puts it:“It is like one who immerses him/herself in a ritual bath with a ritually impure reptile in hand.” The process of purification is never completed. This idea is also expressed in a Talmudic dictum based on this verse: Said Rabbi Yochanan: “Every kohen who kills another person should not raise his hands [bless the people with the priestly blessing], as it is written: ‘Your hands are stained with blood’.” (Berachot 33b)
By what means can a person or the nation rectify this sorry state of alienation? According to Rashi, this verse answers explicitly: “These verses contain ten different verbs which call upon us to do teshuva (repent). In other words, the only way “to return” to one’s previous intimacy with God is to rectify those things which caused the distance between oneself and God. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provance) outlines the actions entailed by a number of these ten verbs: ‘Wash’ – cleansing one’s heart; ‘Cease’ – from harming others; ‘Learn’ – to avoid wrongdoing; ‘Learn’ – to do good for others; ‘Devote yourselves to do justice’ – between the oppressor and the oppressed; ‘Aid the wronged’ – help the one who has been wronged by the judicial system; ‘Uphold – defend’ – don’t close your ears to the cries of the oppressed.
Rabbi Joseph Albo, the 15th century Spanish philosopher and moralist, asserts that God is so disenchanted by this moral and religious hypocrisy that reconciliation with Him requires a special effort: “When a person is very far from God… increased prayer [ritual entreaty] will not help unless the person performs acts of contrition and repentance… (Sefer Ikkarim 3:23)
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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