Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Although this week’s haftorah is the opening chapter of Sefer Yishayahu (whose opening word became the title for this Shabbat), there is rabbinic disagreement as to whether it is the prophet’s first vision or whether that is reserved for the prophecy found in the sixth chapter, where Yishayahu receives his charge from God to undertake the responsibility of being a navi. There is no controversy, however, regarding the message that Yishayahu delivers in this perek. This pre-Tisha B’Av reading, the last of the three haftarot of punishment (t’lat d’puranuta), does indeed begin with a description of the punishments that would befall Israel, but continues with a forceful condemnation of the sinful people.

But what, precisely, was their sin? The prophet is quite clear. The city of Jerusalem was once “mile’ati mishpat,” filled with justice, “tzedek yalin bah,” righteousness dwelled within her—but now, murderers do! Justice and righteousness, “tzedek” and “mishpat,” were no longer pursued and this failure, Yishayahu declares, has God reject the people’s offerings to Him. He is “weary” of them, “disgusted” (!) by them, “burdened” by them; He rejects the sacrifices and the people’s prayers as being “worthless” because they are offered by those who continue to oppress the poor and torment the weak.

The prophet does not, however, complete his message without providing the repair that Hakadosh Baruch Hu demands. “Dirshu mishpat,” seek justice, he cries, “rivu almana,” fight for the widow. This call for social justice fills the words of Yishayahu and every prophet who followed. It is an essential challenge to the descendants of Abraham, who was himself chosen “l’ma’an asher yetzaveh et banav,….” so that he will charge his descendants, “v’shamru derech Hashem,” to keep God’s ways, “la’asot tz’daka umishpat,” and practice justice and righteousness.

The prophet calls out to his generation and ours as well to repair our relationship with others, our treatment of our fellows, our care for the unfortunate so that we will see the fruition of the haftorah’s final words: “Tziyon b’mishpat tipadeh, v’shaveha btz’daka.” Tziyon will be redeemed through justice and those who return to her through righteousness!

Rabbi Neil Winkler is a past rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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