Parashat Devarim (Haftara to Shabbat Chazon)

In the following post, I am primarily going to discuss the Haftara to this week’s parasha. This Shabbat is the last shabbat before Tisha b’Av, and we read Isaiah’s entreaty, prophesied in the name of God, begging the people of Judah to reform their ways so that they may avoid the calamity that is about to befall them:

“Woe to a sinful nation, a people heavy with iniquity, evildoing seed, corrupt children. They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards. Why are you beaten when you still continue to rebel? Every head is [afflicted] with illness and every heart with malaise (…) Your land is desolate; your cities burnt with fire. Your land – in your presence, strangers devour it; and it is desolate as that turned over to strangers.

(…)

Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and hegoats I do not want. When you come to appear before Me, who requested this of you, to trample My courts? You shall no longer bring vain meal-offerings, it is smoke of abomination to Me; New Moons and Sabbaths, calling convocations, I cannot [bear] iniquity with assembly. Your New Moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates, they are a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing [them]. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you, even when you pray at length, I do not hear; your hands are full of blood.

(…)

Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:4-17. Translation from chabad.org)

What strikes me in this passage is the recognition that man can go either way – man can be kind or wicked, can produce good or evil, and most importantly, man can change. Just because men have been acting badly does not mean that they need to continue to act badly; they can choose to reform their ways, “cease to do evil” and “learn to do good, seek justice, strengthened the robbed,” etc. But becoming good is a process – notice the verbs “learn”, “seek”, “strengthen” – they all point to a process that takes place over time, in the same way that the Jews’ descent into corruption was a process: “They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards.” Rome was neither built, nor destroyed, in a day, and neither was Jerusalem.

I would like to compare this to another vision of man – I’ll call it a Christian vision of man, but I am aware that Christianity is complex and multifaceted, and I am using “Christianity” more as a foil for Judaism than to say something about Christianity itself.

From what I understand, a Christian understanding of man is much more black and white. Man is born in sin, and remains steeped in sin, unless he accepts the salvation that Jesus offers, at which point man is transformed into a sinless person. Man is either saved or damned; and the process of salvation, of transformation from bad to good, is instantaneous and involves appealing to forces outside of the self (Jesus).

Isaiah, on the other hand, offers us a different path towards “salvation.” The salvation in question is not a state into which man passes once he’s saved. According to Isaiah, if the Jews reform their ways, they will have a chance “to redeem Zion.” The salvation will come to Zion, but not necessarily to man. For the process of man is never over. The struggle between our baser and higher instincts will continue. Isaiah doesn’t offer man a remedy that will free him from his evil inclinations, but he does remind man that there is more to him than just evil, and encourages him to try to be good instead.

And the reward for being good, rather than evil, is a redeemed Zion. We might not be able to change our essence, or eradicate the mean and petty that is within us, but if we try and be good, just, and kind, we can change the world around us, and mold our environment to be more good, just and kind – redeemed.

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