Every weekly Torah portion is paired with a haftarah (“what emerges”), a passage from Prophets/Neviim. For nearly 2,000 years, in traditional Saturday Torah services, the chanting of the haftarah follows the chanting of the Torah portion. This week, Jews read the first Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, which is also called Devarim (“Words”). The haftarah this week is Isaiah 1:1-27. Both the Torah portion and the haftarah contain the word eykhah, which means “how” as in “Oh, how could this happen?” This is also the opening word of the book of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha Be-Av, the fast day shortly after this Shabbat. (See my earlier blog post, Devarim: Oh, How.)
All three readings accuse the Israelites of rebellion against God. But Isaiah offers the most hope for change. The Shabbat before Tisha Be-Av is called Shabbat Chazon (Sabbath of Vision) because the book of Isaiah begins with the word chazon (vision or revelation).
The vision of Yeshayahu, son of Amotz, who had vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem … (Isaiah 1:1)
The Hebrew for Isaiah is Yeshayahu, which means “Rescue of God”. Again and again, even as Isaiah points out how despicably the children of Israel are behaving, he promises that eventually God will rescue them.
After the opening sentence, which also dates Isaiah’s prophecies by listing the names of the kings of Judah during his time, Isaiah’s first poem begins:
Listen, heavens, and use [your] ears, earth;
Because God has spoken:
I brought up children, and I made them high,
And they? They rebel against me.
An ox knows his koneh,
And a donkey the feeding-trough of his ba-al.
Israel does not know;
My people do not hitbonan. (Isaiah 1:2-4)
koneh = owner, buyer; creator.
ba-al = master, ruler; local god.
hitbonan = consider. (From the same root as binah = understanding, analysis.)
In these verses, the ox is the most knowledgeable because it recognizes its owner. Next comes the donkey, which recognizes the place where its owner provides nourishment. Last come the Israelites, who do not even recognize that someone is giving them nourishment.
The reverse order applies to the role of God. God, who creates all creatures, is only the creator (an earlier meaning of koneh) as far as the ox is concerned. God is the ba-al, the local god, of the donkey. But when it comes to the children of Israel, God is also like a parent, bringing them up, making them high (superior), and considering them “My people”.
Does this mean that the more God does for someone, the less that creature recognizes God? Not necessarily. The tragedy in these opening verses is that God elevates human beings in general by endowing us with both the intelligence to consider, analyze, and understand, and the desire to distinguish between good and bad. The Israelites, like any people, have the God-given ability to figure out that God is their creator, sustainer, and parent. They also have the ability to feel gratitude, and to choose good behavior. Yet they do not take the trouble to stop and consider any of this.
Isaiah views this willful ignorance not as laziness, but as deliberate denial: They rebel against me. Furthermore, in Isaiah’s view, those who turn their backs on God also turn their backs on ethical behavior. He calls them People heavy with crooked deeds. (Isaiah 1:4)
Willful ignorance is not bliss. Isaiah mourns how much the Israelites have suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, whose attack on the two Israelite kingdoms began around 740 B.C.E. The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom, and besieged but did not capture Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. Isaiah, like most of the prophets, assumes that if the Israelites had been upright and ethical, God would not have permitted the Assyrians to defeat them and burn their cities. Isaiah calls God the God of Armies, including Assyrian armies. He uses God’s complete destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to remind his audience that God destroys immoral peoples.
If the God of Armies had not left us a few survivors,
We would be like Sodom,
We would resemble Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1:9)
Nevertheless, the surviving Israelites are not doomed. They still have the ability to change, and God still wants them to turn back from evil. Isaiah reports God saying:
Give up doing evil!
Learn to do good!
Seek out the rule of law.
Step on the oppressor.
Get justice for the orphan.
Defend the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
God assures the people that they can, indeed, be redeemed from their immorality, if they pay attention and obey God. Then Isaiah mourns over how far the people of Jerusalem have fallen, beginning with the line: Eykha (Oh, how) has it become a prostitute, [this] faithful city? (Isaiah 1:21)
Nevertheless, at the end of the haftarah, Isaiah says that if the surviving Israelites in Judah (also called Zion) learn to do good, then God will save them.
Zion will be redeemed through lawful justice,
And those who turn back, through righteousness. (Isaiah 1:27)
Isaiah’s poetry calls for the repentance of the people of Judah. But does it address any people today?
Certainly human beings are still endowed with the intelligence to figure out that we did not create ourselves, nor the world that supports us. We might also notice that our elaborate intelligence and our ethical intuitions are extraordinary gifts. Yet like the Israelites of the 8th century B.C.E., we often do not take the trouble to stop and consider.
Someone who does stop and consider today might conclude that human abilities are merely an accidental result of evolution, and have nothing to do with anything that might be called God. For atheists, Isaiah’s claim that turning away from God means turning away from moral behavior makes no sense. When I was an atheist myself, I still felt gratitude for the world and humanity, and I believed that the human condition came with its own ethical imperatives.
Someone with a traditional Jewish or Christian background who stopped to consider might conclude that God is sufficiently anthropomorphic to prefer some types of human behavior over others. Such a person might analyze the Bible as well as the world, and conclude that God prescribes moral behavior such as honoring parents and protecting orphans, and proscribes immoral behavior such as cheating, adultery, and murder. Someone who believes in a somewhat anthropomorphic God, but takes the Bible with a grain of salt, might conclude that God desires whatever human behavior promotes harmony, cooperation, and mutual respect.
What if someone who is neither an atheist nor a believer in a semi-anthropomorphic God stops to consider? My intellectual analysis deduces that God is the condition of “becoming” implied by the four-letter name of God (sometimes written in Roman letters as YHVH) based on the Hebrew verb for “to be” or “to become”. Another part of my mind concludes that the word “God” covers various mysterious forces in the world. I believe God is evolving along with the universe, and our human attitudes and actions affect God’s evolution. If we become more ethical, the forces of God become more ethical.
Does this mean that eventually God will not let the army of one country devastate another country? Maybe so—if God works through the human psyche.
The lesson I draw from the Isaiah’s opening poem is that if we learn to do good as individuals, the whole world will improve. And the first step toward learning to do good is to stop and consider that our existence depends on forces outside our control; and therefore we owe gratitude to other human beings, to the whole universe, and—yes—to God.