parsha of the week

Haftarah asks: Just what does G-d want?


The haftarah of Chazon, the opening chapter of Yeshayahu, includes a message from G-d that is very hard to understand.

“Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the L-rd. I am sated with the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; the blood of bulls, sheep and goats I do not want. You shall no longer bring vain meal offerings, it is smoke of abomination to Me. New Moons and Sabbaths … Your New Moons and your appointed seasons, My soul hates; they are a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing [them]. 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” (Yeshayahu 1:12-17).

What does He mean? G-d doesn’t like sacrifices? He doesn’t like Rosh Chodesh? He doesn’t like Shabbos? He doesn’t like holidays?

The Radak explains that what bothered the Al-mighty about the sacrifices is that the people were bringing offerings on bamot — an unsanctioned form of service — both to G-d and in the form of avodah zara, and then they’d turn around and bring korbanot at the Beit Hamikdash on Rosh Chodesh and holidays.

You can’t be unfaithful to a spouse and still profess your love to them, and the same goes for one’s relationship with G-d. So G-d says, “I don’t need your gifts and apologies when you have completely disavowed the relationship. You’re certainly not fooling Me!”

Abravanel quotes a Midrash Tanchuma on Parshas Pinchas, in which Rabbi Akiva is asked by a non-Jew, “Why do you keep your holidays? Doesn’t G-d say here that he hates your Rosh Chodeshes and your Moadim?”

Rabbi Akiva replied, “I’d agree with you if it said ‘I hate My Rosh Chodeshes and My Holidays!’ But G-d says it is ‘your’ Rosh Chodeshes and holidays that He despises. Therefore the despised holidays refer to those invented by Yeravam ben Nevat.”

In other words, these celebrations were not sanctioned, and were demonstrative of a people who were not following G-d’s ways. “When you come to appear before Me, who requested this of you, to trample My courts?” (1:12)

Yeshayahu noted people viewed the Mikdash as a curiosity, an ancient relic of a different age. Perhaps as something to do because it’s cool to say, “This is something my ancestors did.” But ritual alone doesn’t cut it, Yeshayahu says. We can’t just show up seasonally and think it’s enough. We can’t ignore the plight of the needy and destitute and lonely, and assume we’re doing fine in G-d’s eyes.

On “Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow” (1:17), Abravanel writes that doing good and seeking justice means actively looking to do good for others. Not hurting people is the opposite. Not hurting people does nothing for them.

He quotes the Ibn Ezra, who says that the words we’ve translated as “strengthen the robbed,” ishru chamotz, come from the word yashar, to do right for the robbed, to straighten things out. Abravanel supports this view from Leah’s naming of Zilpah’s son Asher: “Because of my good fortune, for women have declared me fortunate.”

The “soured person,” the victim of theft, others should “make right.” Since the widow and orphan typically don’t have an advocate on their behalf, they are mentioned specifically as people for whom we must perform justice.

So let us remember that the holidays and Rosh Chodeshes we observe are G-d’s. Let us remember to show up at shul not only for proper holidays and Rosh Chodeshes, but consistently.

Let us remember that lip service is not service. Tradition is wonderful, but it should be meaningful. If, after a lifetime of davening with intent to catch a train, a person does not know how to pray slowly and deliberately, what a missed opportunity! Unlike those who were chastised by Yeshayahu for bringing meaningless offerings, our offerings in the form of prayer must be meaningful. It means we have to understand what we are saying. And we must be sincere.

At the same time, the prophet says, even more important than how we serve G-d is how we relate to our fellow man. Especially those who need our help.

The prophet reminds us how to relate to the orphan and widow because sometimes we forget people who are literally alone, people who are perhaps socially on the outskirts, for whatever reason. They may or may not be needy financially. But they cannot be ignored by the community.

Ahavas Yisrael, the love of a fellow Jew, is supposed to be ahavas chinam. Without preconditions. Without strings attached. You’re a Jew; I love you. Even if I don’t know you. Even if I don’t agree with you. Even if we have nothing in common. Even if I don’t like you — I still love you.

Being just and righteous, last verse of this haftarah, doesn’t mean that everyone is always right. Nor does it mean that some people won’t be disappointed or lose court cases. But it means we stand for something profound and meaningful. It defines us collectively, both in terms of our personal relationships with G-d and in terms of how we relate to others.

It means, for example, that even when there is disagreement, there is respect.

Respect is the key that the prophet asks for — both heavenward and to one’s fellow man. If our people could only respect each other all the time, this exile would end.