August 13, 2005
Isaiah\’s prophecy, which is read yearly on the Shabbat preceding Tisha b\’Av, outlines for the people of Judah their religious and societal ills in the harshest of terms. Their loyalty to God is compared unfavorably to animals, they are accounted as spiritually ill, and their religious observances are viewed as acts of hypocrisy. Isaiah\’s images are jarring and sensitive individuals cannot help but be pained and stirred. His prophecy offers a remedy: \”Learn to do good. Devote yourself to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.\” (Isaiah 1:17) This radical change in behavior will produce the following results: \”Come let us reach an understanding, says the Lord. Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow white; be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece.\” (verse 18 – NJPS translation)
This verse describes the community\’s transformation and renewal in a poetic form known as parallelism, namely, both segments of the verse express the same idea in different words: sins – crimson > snow white = red – dyed wool > fleece. Judea\’s earlier sinful status is symbolized by the color red and their new found purity is represented by the color white. The redundant use of imagery in this verse was intended for emphasis.
Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen (the Meshech Hochmah) from Dvinsk (19th-20th century Lithuania), in authentic rabbinic fashion (see Yoma 9b), derived a message by distinguishing between the two parts of the parallelism. He drew a distinction between the colors \”snow white\” and \”dyed wool\”, which he considered to be only \”off-white\”. He asserts that the sins of the First Temple period were not as severe as those committed during the Second Temple period. The sins committed during the First Temple period were less severe, according to him, because they were committed openly and not in secret. He maintains that the people\’s inner life was left untainted and they remained committed to Torah and Israel. Their sins caused the destruction of the First Temple but when they repented, they became \”white as snow\”.
But, according to the Rabbi Meir Simcha, the sins of the people of the Second Temple were more severe. They were not red but scarlet because their sins affected both their behavior and their inner lives as well. They not only sinned outwardly but were also tainted by senseless hatred. This kind of sin does not \”wash up\” as cleanly as the other type, hence, the color \”fleece\” which is not completely white. (see Meshech Hochmah Devarim Haftarah)
At first glance, it is hard to discern what difference the distinction being made by Rabbi Meir Simcha makes. Sin is sin. Violence is violence. Yet, I think that his message suggests that what made the transgressions of the Second Temple period worse than those of the First Temple period was that sin and violence became an ingrained part of the ideology of the people. When this happens, not only does it cause society to disintegrate but it also becomes much harder to reconcile one\’s relationship with God after recognizing the errors of one\’s ways. These are thoughts to ponder before Tisha b\’Av.
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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