The Navi Yishayahu begins this week’s haftarah (and therefore, his entire sefer) letting us know that, although at times, he addresses words of nevuah to other nations, this chapter’s prophecy was directed to Yehuda and Yerushalayim. Clearly, this would seem to be a rather minor detail, yet it is a troubling one. Why, after all, were the Navi’s admonitions directed to the Southern Kingdom when the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile of Yehuda would first take place over 100 years later (actually, after Yishayahu was murdered!).
Certainly, the merciful God wanted to grant the nation many years to return and repent. But I would add that the warnings were purposely issued at this earlier time, because the current generation had just witnessed the Assyrian invasion and exile of the Northern Kingdom. The destruction of Shomron and her population, therefore, would have a powerful impact on this generation to heed Yishayahu’s warnings of impending exile and destruction.
But they didn’t...
And the reason why many turned a deaf ear to the words of Yishayahu was because they saw themselves as different from their Israelite brethren. “They were better,” they thought, “because they dwelled in the land that housed Hashem’s holy sanctuary which, they knew, could never be destroyed.”
But there was yet another reason: they could not accept the prophet’s description of their nation as being sinful. They were, after all, faithful worshippers of the Almighty, adherents who regularly offered their sacrifices to Hashem in the Beit HaMikdash. And this was their downfall... A simple review of this perek will reveal the Yishayahu’s contempt for their Temple worship: “Lama li rov zivcheichem?—Why do I need your multiple offerings?” “I do not desire the blood of your bulls and sheep.” “Who asked you to trample through My courtyards?”
Yishayahu’s powerful condemnations of the sacrificial rite led the non-traditional commentators to believe that God desired to abrogate ceremonial religiosity completely.
But that was untrue.
Rav Soloveitchik explained that the prophets protested against the prevailing view that man’s world was divided into two domains: the secular and the sacred. “It is only within the sacred world that one must follow God’s laws,” they claimed, “because Hashem does not intervene in the secular world and, therefore, one is free to behave as he desires.”
It was against this sin which our Nevi’im remonstrated and, as only the Rav could express it, “against … the occluded heart that howls sublime utterances and … that is insolent outside the Temple.”
As we stand just a few hours before Tisha B’Av, a time when we spend much of the day wailing over the Churban and begging Hashem to remember our pain, the message contained in the words of our haftara should bring us pause to consider how better we can avoid the hypocrisy of past generations … and, unfortunately, found in our generation as well.
Let us spend the coming day — and weeks — to strive and fill our world of the secular with the holiness we reflect in the world of the sacred.
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.