A prophetic shift (A Yom Kippur d’var haftarah on Isaiah 58)

Andy Oram
29 September 2003

At the right historical moment, a charismatic individual with a powerful message can propel an entire tradition in a new direction.

Because Isaiah, Chapter 58, is a foreign and formidable document, I’ll introduce this principle with an example that’s closer to us: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I’ll draw my view of this moment in history from the prize-winning book “Lincoln at Gettysburg” by the famous historian Garry Wills.

According to Wills, when Lincoln harked back to the Declaration of Independence “four score and seven years ago,” claiming to find in it “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” he was dignifying the role of the ordinary citizen far more than was articulated by our country’s founders, who were concerned with such things as states’ rights and the balance of power between branches of government.

Lincoln succeeded in bringing Americans over to his view of our tradition. His reading of the proposition “all men are created equal” as not just a rejection of monarchy, but an ideal for which we must all strive in every generation, was invoked four score and seven years later to justify the civil rights movement and many other principles that until recently we took for granted, and that the priviliged still find hard to undermine.

Now let’s consider the Jewish tradition. The founding documents in that tradition, of course, are the five books of Moses. Regardless of when they were assembled, we have evidence that their passages were cited throughout Jewish history to indicate what one might call the founders’ original intent. At the center of the Torah are laws, some of which were meant to draw Israel closer to her God through animal sacrifices, ritual purification, and other practices, while other laws laid out precepts for a good society. For instance: Pay your workers what you owe them, promptly! Leave a portion of your wealth to the poor! Provide refuge for the fugitive! and even, Love the stranger like yourself!

As beautiful and challenging as we find such laws, their effect would not be to perfect society. Rather, it would be to take off the hard edges, to protect the most vulnerable people within that society, and therefore to make it run a little better. That is why we often wish the laws had gone even farther. For instance, the Torah fails to offer a strong position for women. And the Torah, like the U.S. Constitution, leaves a place for slavery.

Even in its restraint, the Torah proved too challenging for some people. After all, why do we read Haftarah portions? Probably because some long-gone ruling class outlawed public reading of the Torah. In the supreme foolishness that falls to arrogant power, they left us instead to read prophets such as Isaiah.

The irony of banning Torah readings is that it was the prophets who rebelled against contemporary society, with the intention of perfecting it. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “the central endeavor of the prophet” is “to set forth not only a divine law, but a divine life.” The kind of challenge this presents to tradition can be seen right away in the earliest prophet of this period, Amos, who ascribes to God the words, “I hate your festivals”; (5:21) “take your anthems away from me.” (5:23) And the last of the prophets, Malachi, has not let go of the tirade four hundred years later. He has God saying: “I will curse your berachot” (your blessings), (2:2) and wishing that somebody would just shut the door to the temple so no one could offer sacrifices any more. (1:10)

These shocking turns of phrase, signs of a deeper shift in values, can be found throughout the prophets and were also part of Isaiah’s armory. But a different kind of power, and a more lasting one, is wielded by the passage we read today, written in the fifth century B.C.E. by an anonymous author with a remarkable mastery of the rhetorical moment. Commentators believe that the bulk of Chapter 58 was uttered by the prophet when he was invited to address a congregation on a fast day, much as I am talking to you today. While he attached himself to their discomfort, he created an explicit and fateful encounter with tradition.

The key turn comes in the fifth verse. “Is this the fast I have chosen? A day of self-affliction?” Well, yes, actually, this is precisely the fast God has chosen, if you care to go back to the Torah and look. The words of Isaiah, translated here as “self-affliction,” are the words that appear in the book of Leviticus (23:27) and the book of Numbers (29:7) to describe what the Israelites should do on Yom Kippur.

To see where the author is heading, we have to consider these words in Hebrew for a moment: “anot adam nafsho.” I will start with the third word because it is probably familiar to you; its root is nefesh. It appears in prayers and many other places to mean “soul,” but in the Bible it could just as well mean “self.”

The second word, adam, means “man” or “individual.” It is not in the passages from Leviticus or Numbers. Nor is it in our translation here, unfortunately, which I think makes the translation more obscure. I’ll come back to adam later.

The first root, ahn, is found in words ranging from humility and poverty to affliction, oppression, and even torture. The odd-sounding combination ahn nefesh is thus translated “self-affliction.” As we know, tradition interprets the Torah’s ahn nefesh as a fast, which is apt. The nefesh, in the speculations of the Kabbalah that come later, is the part of the soul bound up with the body, the part responsible for organizing the physical elements of the universe into the miracle of a living body. Depriving one’s body of food is therefore a deeply appropriate ritual to carry out the command ahn nefesh.

But—if Isaiah Chapter 58 is quoting Torah literally, why the mocking, dismissive tone? Is the author sneering at ahn nefesh? Does he reject the laws of the Torah itself?

When I discovered the word tie between Isaiah and the Torah, I was profoundly disturbed. How could I reconcile these two passages, both so central to the Jewish tradition? How could I follow the laws and still honor Isaiah? I read five or six commentaries on Chapter 58, and not one even mentioned the word tie.

Finally the answer came to me: when the book of Isaiah denigrates “a day of self-affliction,” the author cannot be rejecting the words from the Torah, ahn nefesh. So this is the central point I am making today: when the author sets himself against “a day of self-affliction,” he’s not rejecting ahn nefesh.

He’s complaining that it’s only one day!

Furthermore, by inserting the word adam for “individual,” I am convinced he is protesting the view of ahn nefesh as a private self-denial, and is substituting instead a collective one.

By highlighting the words of God in such a brazen manner, the author binds his own agenda—“Unlock the shackles of injustice…let the oppressed go free…”—binds his own agenda indissolubly to the laws of the Torah. Understanding this, I could see the historic power of Isaiah, Chapter 58. And I could contact our Ritual Committee with the assurance that I would not be eating a ham sandwich on the Bima today.

Two thousand five hundred years ago, a prophet identified the solution to society’s gravest needs in a tradition of self-denial, and vastly expanded its meaning. His insight penetrated to the center of that very tradition and changed it to this day.

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