Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) and the haftarah is Isaiah 1:1-27.
Jerusalem, the strong walled city in the hills, the capital of Judah and the site of the temple of the God of Israel, fell to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.E. On Tisha B’Av, the tenth of the month of Av, Jews remember the razing of the temple by chanting the book of Lamentations/Eykhah, which begins:
The city sits alone,
Once great with people.
She has become like a widow,
Once great among the nations.
A princess among the provinces,
She has become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)
Eykhah (אֵיכָה) = Oh, how? Alas! How could it be? (See my post Devarim: Oh, How?)
The prophet Jeremiah had been warning the people of Jerusalem to stop worshiping other gods and acting immorally (as well as warning the kings of Jerusalem to submit to the Babylonians before it was too late). But they all ignored him. So the God of Israel, the “god of armies”, according to Jeremiah, let the Babylonians destroy the city that was supposed to be the place where God’s enlightenment came into the world.
The book of Jeremiah calls Jerusalem (and by extension the Israelites) God’s bride, who made a covenant like a marriage with God—and then strayed after other gods and became a prostitute. In Lamentations, she has become a widow, utterly bereft of God.
This week’s haftarah is always read on the Saturday morning before Tisha B’Av, and it also includes the despairing cry, Eykhah!
Eykhah! She has become a prostitute,
The [once] faithful city
Filled with justice.
Tzedek used to linger in her,
But now—murderers. (Isaiah 1:21)
Tzedek (צֶדֶק) = virtue, rightness, righteousness justice, good deeds.
The haftarah, which refers to events in 701 B.C.E., also reminds us that according to the book of Isaiah, God gave the people of Judah and Jerusalem more than a century of opportunities to change their ways before finally the temple was razed.
What misdeeds does Isaiah urge the people to stop doing?
This haftarah is not about worshiping false gods, but about worshiping God falsely—by following the ritual forms without obeying God’s commandments about just behavior toward fellow human beings.
Why do you give me so many slaughter-sacrifices?
And the fat of meat-cattle
And the blood of bulls.
And lambs and he-goats
I do not want
When you come to appear before Me.
Who asks for that from your hand?
Do not go on trampling My courts
Incense is repugnant to Me.
New moon and sabbath
Reading to an assembly—
I cannot endure
Misdeeds and ritual celebrations! (Isaiah 1:11-13)
Isaiah is especially critical of the government in Jerusalem.
Your officials are obstinate
And comrades of thieves,
Every one a lover of bribes
And a pursuer of payments.
They do not judge the case of the orphan,
Nor does the lawsuit of the widow come to them. (Isaiah 1:23)
Nevertheless, God offers the people a chance to reform and be saved from future wars.
Go, please, and be set right
[Even] if your faults are like crimson dye,
They shall become white like the snow.
If they are red as scarlet fabric,
They shall become like fleece.
If you do good and you pay attention,
The goodness of the land you shall eat.
But if you refuse and you are obstinate,
You will be devoured by the sword… (Isaiah 1:18-20)
The haftarah concludes:
Zion can be redeemed through justice,
And those who turn back, through tzedek. (Isaiah 1:27)
Like Job, we know that being good is not always rewarded in this world. When we see God as an anthropomorphic judge meting out rewards and punishments, God seems to look away from saints as well as sinners.
Yet the human race as a whole could be redeemed through justice and virtue. If we all dedicated ourselves to following treaties and international laws, to being honest and fair, and to helping the needy, war would disappear.
On an individual level, at least good behavior leads to a clear conscience and the trust of others, and those result in a happier life than the lives of the murderers, thieves, bribe-takers, and heart-hardeners who ruled Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time.
And a happier life than the priests in this week’s haftarah, who spread their hands to bless he congregation even though they, too, are guilty.
And when you spread out your palms
I lift My eyes away from you;
Even if you make abundant prayers
I will not be listening;
Your hands are filled with bloodshed. (Isaiah 1:15)
So go ahead and pray, attend services, follow rituals to approach God. But remember Isaiah’s words, and also keep your hands clean.