Shabbat Rosh Hodesh
June 16, 2007
Parshat Korah – Shabbat Rosh Hodesh Tammuz (Isaiah 66:1-24)
Isaiah\’s final set of prophecies, which form the special haftarah for a Shabbat which coincides with Rosh Hodesh, opens with an indictment of people who feign piety but whose behavior is, in truth, reproachable. After reminding the people that a house of God has no meaning when the moral principles that God represents are ignored, or worse, brazenly transgressed, Isaiah goes on to outline a series of offences which were reprehensible in God\’s eyes: \”As for those who slaughter oxen and slay human beings, who slaughter sheep and immolate dogs, who present as oblation the blood of swine. Who offer incense and worship false gods – just as they have chosen their ways and take pleasure in their abominations, so will I choose to mock them, to bring them the very thing that they dread, for I called and none responded, I spoke and none paid heed. They did what I deem evil and chose what I do not want. (Verses 3-4)
The plain sense of these verses seems to be that they are a continuation of the verses which precede them. Those who do not pay heed to God\’s moral guidance and continue to carry out their hollow religious behaviors, even their good acts are offensive to God. Those who \”slaughter oxen\” (as a sacrifice) while mistreating the poor are equivalent in God\’s eyes to someone who slaughters human beings; those who slaughter sheep but abuse the downtrodden are like those who sacrifice dogs and so on. (Amos Hakham, Isaiah, Daat Mikra, p. 777) This verse seeks to express how offensive God finds hypocritical behavior.
Midrash Vayikra Rabbah (22:6) records a discussion between two rabbis from the period of the Talmud who disagreed about the meaning of this verse: \”Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish offer different interpretations of this text. R. Yohanan explains it as meaning that anyone who robs his neighbor of anything equivalent to the value of even a peruta is regarded as though he had slain him; for it says: ‘He that kills an[other person\’s] ox’ it is as if he slew a [that] man’. Resh Lakish transposed (seareis) the texts [He flipped the words of each clause of the verse.], explaining them thus: ’He slays a man [as casually] as if he were killing an ox; he breaks a dog\’s neck [as casually] as if were sacrificing a lamb; he offers swine\’s blood [forbidden, obviously] as if he were offering a meal-offering [permitted]; he blesses an idol [idolatry], just as easily as if he were making a memorial-offering; according as they have chosen their own ways (Isaiah 66:3).\” (Margolioth ed. pp. 512-514 – Adapted translation)
These two sages find different ways of extending the significance of the transgressions that offended God. Rabbi Yohanan learns from this verse that theft is tantamount to murder since one who steals from someone else takes from them the ability to purchase sustenance. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, here, criticizes the casual nature of crime. He maintains that God becomes upset when the murder of human beings is as matter of fact as if it were just the slaughter of an animal; the breaking of a dog\’s neck as if it were no different than offering up sheep; the offering of swine as no different than offering a meal offering.
Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel (Spain 15th century) sees this verse as a progression of sins, one leading to another as if it were a scene from Had Gadya (the song from the Pesah Hagaddah): \”He kills the ox in order to steal it, he kills its master to steal the ox; he slaughters the sheep in order to eat it and kills the dog who guards the sheep so that it won\’t bark etc.\”
All of these sages share a common concern that a religious person\’s everyday life should reflect an allegiance to God. One\’s dealings with God should reflect this loyalty but equally, one\’s dealing with others human beings should as well. Only then will God find a dwelling place amongst us.
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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