Learn to do good, seek justice; relieve the oppressed. Uphold the orphan’s rights; take up the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:17)
This classic verse comes from last week's Haftarah (prophetic) portion from last Shabbat. It is final so-called “Haftarah of affliction” - powerful prophetic texts that are read during the weeks leading up to the fast day of Tisha B’Av. With intense and searingly painful poetry, these texts take our community to task for the ways we have failed to uphold our highest values, spelling out - in often graphic detail - the human cost of our collective failures.
Tisha B'Av begins this Saturday evening - and beginning next week our prophetic portions will switch gears dramatically, offering messages of consolation and hope. In this way, our tradition will remind us that we never forfeit the possibility to bring justice and righteousness into our world. Indeed, it is this very message that will guide us into the High Holiday season itself – "the season of our return."
As I read this passage this year, I was mindful of a similar passage that will appear in the Haftarah of Yom Kippur, also from the book of Isaiah:
No, this is the fast that I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free and break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; to clothe when you see the naked, and never forget your own flesh (Isaiah 58:6-7).
In a way, these two similar Isaiah passages seem to represent spiritual bookends to the High Holiday season. These characteristically prophetic calls to justice and repentance guide us through our High Holiday journey, reminding us not only of our seemingly chronic hypocrisy but also of the eternally simple route to return: “learn to do good, free the oppressed, feed the hungry…”
Although I typically understand this dictum in universalist terms, I know all too well that there are Jews who read these kinds of words in a decidedly different way. Some years ago, for instance, when I discussed this passage on my blog, one commenter took exception to my interpretation, claiming “never forget your own flesh” actually means "do not forget your fellow Jews," rather than "do forget your fellow human beings." In others words, charity begins at home.
Now usually when I hear this kind of narrow, parochial interpretation of Jewish tradition, I usually don't go much farther than agreeing to disagree. But when I read this particular comment, I felt motivated to do a bit of digging into the source material. As it turns out the Hebrew word for “your flesh” – b’sarcha – can indeed refer to blood relations or kin. But interestingly, according to the Brown, Driver, Briggs Biblical Dictionary, this term can also mean “all living beings” (occurring in this usage at least 13 times throughout the Bible.)
While there are certainly those in the Jewish community who won't be impressed by my clever linguistic analysis, who will never give up on the idea that when push comes to shove, we Jews have only ourselves to rely on. Nevertheless, I do believe there are growing numbers who understand that we are all one flesh, and that our Jewish destiny is irrevocably bound up with the destiny of all peoples of the world.
Indeed, here at Tzedek Chicago, we've enshrined this very idea as a congregational core value:
We understand that the Jewish historical legacy as a persecuted people bequeaths to us a responsibility to reject the ways of oppression and stand with the most vulnerable members of our society...As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”
Amen and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brant Rosen