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'Here G-d's Word, you captains of Sodom! Listen to the teachings of our G-d, your people of Gomorroh!' (Isaiah 1:10)
The extremely powerful and dramatic opening verses of the Book of Isaiah form this Haftara. Isaiah was a navi: an individual who personally received the word of G-d and conveyed it to the people. Isaiah himself lived at around 725 BCE. That was when both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were going through spiritual and moral decline. In consequence, his earlier prophesies - messages directly from G-d - foresaw the exiles of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel under Assyria (which took place in his lifetime), and ultimately (39:6-7) the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
The Book of Isaiah also contains deeply inspiring words of encouragement, applying to both the Israelites and the world at large. It repeatedly stresses that the Israelite exiles and Divine punishments suffered will be temporary, and that G-d will eventually redeem His people and settle them permanently in His Land. Not only will they live under His constant care and guidance, but they will also raise the moral and ethical levels of the other nations.
The text forming the Haftara implies the strong message that the real threat to the lives of Judah and Jerusalem was not simply the might of Assyria, the great international power of the time, but the nation's own sin in abandoning the Torah, and its lack of faith in G-d. The Northern Kingdom of the Ten Tribes was hurtling down in its spiritual decay, with defeat and exile on the way, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah - the subject of Isaiah's opening prophecy - was moving along the same downhill path. Isaiah of Jerusalem differed from Amos and Micah, who also lived in the Southern Kingdom. The bulk of their prophecies were against the traditionally errant, and far more prosperous Northern Kingdom - away from their home territory. By contrast, Isaiah opens by facing the situation on his own doorstep - the Holy City of Jerusalem (1:1). As Rosenberg S.G. (The Haftara Cycle: p.176) points out, staying firmly on home ground and confronting the evils on one's home patch is rather more difficult than seeing the faults in other places.
Like Moses (Deut. 32:1), Isaiah calls on the Creation (1:2) to witness G-d's message to the people of Jerusalem - which consists of four themes:
1. Scathing rebuke - where other prophets, such as Hosea, speak of Israel as an unfaithful wife, Isaiah talks of 'children' whom He raised, and who 'rebelled' against Him (1:2) - '(even) an ox knows his owner, and a donkey knows his master's feeding trough. But Israel does not know, My people do not perceive.' (1:3). Isaiah was particularly harsh towards the leadership of the Southern Kingdom - the 'chiefs of Sodom' (1:10) - under his own nose in Jerusalem. He brings the word of G-d telling them how He despises their hypocrisy in their elaborate religious ceremonies and displays of prayer one side, coupled with their rampart social injustice on the other. 'How the faithful city has become like a harlot!' exclaims Isaiah. 'Once it was full of justice, and righteousness lived within; but now - murderers! … Your princes are wayward and associates of thieves, they all love bribes and pursue gifts. They do not judge the orphan, and the widow's case does not reach them.' (1:21-23)
2. Dire warning of what was to come if the people did not repent - the Land of Judah would become desolate, burnt by fire, and devoured by foreigners (1:7) - which actually happened, as the Lachish relief (now in the British Museum) poignantly bears witness. Although Jerusalem did not actually fall, it was heavily beleaguered (701 BCE), barely surviving - and was very likely what Isaiah foresaw in his alluding to 'the daughter of Zion being left like a hut in the vineyard… as a besieged city.' (1:8)
3. Guidance - the only way to avoid future disaster is for the people to change their priorities and ways. Dignity and justice for the helpless, destitute, and less protected classes of society - represented by the orphan and the widow, came before Temple offerings and prayer: 'Learn to do good! Devote yourself to justice! Aid the wronged! Uphold the rights of the orphan! Defend the cause of the widow!' (1:17)
4. Words of comfort - Jerusalem would ultimately have to be cleansed by the enemy, as the people would not listen to his warnings: G-d would use suffering at the hands of other peoples to reform them, as they would not reform themselves. Then G-d would restore His qualities of social justice that He demands - especially in His Holy City: 'I will restore your judges as of old, and your advisers as you had long ago. Afterwards you will be called "City of Righteousness, Faithful City." Zion will be redeemed though justice, and those who repent there through righteousness.' (1:26-27)
Isaiah, like Hosea, Amos, and Jeremiah rebuked their peoples for bringing Temple offerings, whilst they not only neglected G-d's Commandments, but also basic common decency. Indeed, Jeremiah witnessing the Destruction of Jerusalem more than a century later, declared that the 'sin of my people became greater than the sin of Sodom' (Lam. 4:6). Isaiah makes a similar comparison in the Haftara text: 'Here G-d's Word, you captains of Sodom! Listen to the teachings of our G-d, your people of Gomorroh!' (1:10)
What is the connection between the conduct of the people of Jerusalem and the people of Sodom? Why did the Prophet select specifically the society of Sodom? Surely there were many degenerate nations living at that time that would have made suitable comparison, without having to delve into ancient history?
In answering that question, the Torah testifies that Sodom was prosperous and successful - 'like the Garden of G-d, like the Land of Egypt' (Gen. 13:10) - Egypt and Mesopotamia being the most sophisticated civilizations of that age. Lot, who himself was wealthy (ibid. 13:5-6), fitted well into that society. He was good for business - he was good for the State. In short, Lot was welcome to Sodom, because he was a worthwhile investment. By contrast, the two 'uninvited guests' (19:1 ff.) who appeared to be a drain on the economy did not fit in…
That was the underlying mechanism of the society of Sodom - using people that can help you and turning one's back to all the rest. In short - 'We, Ourselves, and Us'.
Now look at the practices that Isaiah highlighted as being the things that G-d hates. 'I am fed up with your burnt offerings! [Your] incense is offensive to me! I hate your New Moons and Festivals - they are a burden to Me, and I cannot bear them! When you spread your hands [in prayer], I will turn my eyes away from you. As much as you pray, I will not listen…' (1:13-15)
One of my teachers, Rabbi M. Miller ztl, made the following point. There are two reasons why a person giving a shiur (Torah discourse) might move his hand. One is positive, and the other is negative. If that person does so as a gesture to emphasize a point he is making, and he is giving Torah instruction as an act of service to his Creator and his students, that movement is a worthy one. It is part of giving the shiur. If instead, his overriding purpose is to show off and ingratiate himself with the public, that hand movement is an unworthy one. It is part of an exercise in self-aggrandizement at the expense of the public, as well as a self-centered abuse of Torah. Thus the same words, accompanied by the same actions might be delivered to two similar audiences. One may be a service to G-d and the students, and the other an abuse of the Torah and the students, and a service to oneself only. The latter, using the words of the Haftara, G-d hates: it makes Him weary.
Similarly there are two types of reasons why a person may spend a long time in prayer. It could be a deep and genuine intercession between himself and the Creator - for the good of Humanity. He might be so deeply involved that he does forget the time… and he has to be tapped on the shoulder to finish, as the place is being locked up. But there could be another explanation - based on his own selfish interests. It might suit him in certain societies to get a reputation of being a 'tzaddik' (righteous person) - so he goes through all the motions and exaggerated physical accompaniments, so that the shammas (sexton) who eventually has to ease him out of the synagogue, spreads the word about his 'piety'. Likewise, Isaiah railed against the elaborate voluntary festivals offerings at the Temple could have been made to impress other people of one's wealth, and make those people with less to spend feel dowdy and unwanted.
That is the connection between Sodom, and the Jerusalem that Isaiah criticized. Both were helping themselves, not others. And the observation made by Jeremiah much later on about the same people: 'the sin of my people became greater than the sin of Sodom' (Lam. 4:6) now makes more sense. Not only did the people of Jerusalem act out of self-interest, as did the people of Sodom, but they went even further - they wrapped those acts up in G-d's Holy Torah. But He was not fooled…
That gives us a deeper understanding of the final words of the Haftara - 'Zion will be redeemed though justice, and those who repent there through tzedaka - righteousness.' (1:27) The fundamental sin of Zion was serving oneself - it will be redeemed when its people serve the true needs of all others - as many individuals and organizations in Jerusalem do today…
QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT DEVARIM
Where, in the text and commentaries of this Parasha, may the following values be learnt?
1. Rebuke should be made with as little emphasis as necessary to be effective - non-confrontational where possible (following Rashi).
2. The time for rebuking should be chosen with care (following Rashi).
3. A person - however great - should not over-estimate his own abilities and skills (following Rashi).
4. Important proposals of national importance should be put forward by leading representatives of the people in a dignified fashion, rather than a through a mass demonstration (following Rashi and the S'forno).
5. People with ill-will towards others assume that those people have ill-will towards them (following Rashi).
6. G-d takes note of those who conduct themselves with due modesty, and He rewards accordingly (following Rashi).
7. Sometimes evil-doers constantly sin to such a degree that G-d removes from them the opportunity to repent (following the Rambam - Hil. Teshuva 6:3).
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT DEVARIM
1. Rebuke should be made with as little emphasis as necessary to be effective - non-confrontational where possible - is derived from Moses' simply stating the names of the places where the Israelites sinned (1:1 - following Rashi) as they traveled in the desert as a veiled reference to their need to learn from their previous shortcomings.
2. That the time for rebuking should be chosen with care may be derived from Moses having addressed the Israelites only after having already conquered the East Bank part of the Holy Land (1:4). As Moses had already carried out part of his promise in bringing them to the Land, nobody could say: 'What right does he have to rebuke us as he did not bring us to the Land?"
3. That a person - however great - should not over-estimate his own abilities and skills (following Rashi) may be learnt in the following way. When Moses organized the hierarchy of judges, he put himself at the top with the words: "What is too difficult for you [to decide], bring to me and I shall hear it." (1:17) According to Rashi, this could imply that Moses claimed that he would always have the answers ready. For that reason, G-d 'checked' him by leaving his mind a mind a blank when confronted with the problem of female inheritance of land in the absence of a male heir - the issue of the Daughters of Zelaphchad (implied in Num. 27:5).
4. Important proposals of national importance should be put forward by leading representatives of the people in a dignified fashion, rather than a through a mass demonstration (following Rashi and the S'forno) - is learnt from the wording of Moses' rebuke over the sin of the Spies. Instead of approaching Moses in an orderly fashion to send people to survey the Promised Land, 'all of you came to me' (1:22) - implying an undignified mass demonstration.
5. People with ill-will towards others assume that those people have ill-will towards them (following Rashi) - may be learnt from way the Israelites acted on hearing the reports of the Spies. They responded by slandering with the words: "G-d took us out of Egypt because He hates us." (1:27) As the people lacked love for G-d, they assumed He hated them.
6. The nations of Moab and Ammon are recorded as being the product of Lot's unknowingly making his two daughters pregnant (Gen. 19:31-38). The oldest daughter called her son 'Moab' (ibid. 19:37) - that name being a corruption of 'M-ab' - meaning 'from the father' (Lot) - taken by the commentators as an unnecessarily immodest reference to his origin. The younger son's name - Ammon - did not carry any reference to the circumstances of his birth. That Lot's descendants deserved a portion of the Land due to Abraham's children is hinted at through his keeping Sarah's real identity secret when Pharaoh's men took her captive (ibid. 12:10-20). However a distinction was made over their conditions of living, in view of the above incident. Thus the Israelites were prohibited to harass Ammon (2:19) - in any way, but that prohibition did not apply to Moab - the Israelites were only forbidden to actually go to war with them (2:9). That shows how the Almighty values due modesty in behavior.
7. Sometimes evil-doers constantly sin to such a degree that G-d removes from them the opportunity to repent (following the Rambam - Hil. Teshuva 6:3), may be learnt from the Torah's recording that 'G-d did not allow Sichon' to accept Moses' request to grant the Israelites passage though his land 'for G-d hardened his spirit and made his heart stubborn in order to deliver him into your hand.' (2:30)
ADDITIONAL QUESTION ON PARASHAT DEVARIM
'You slandered... and said, "G-d, in His hatred for us, brought us out of Egypt to deliver us in the hands of the Amorites…"' (1:27). Such were the words that Moses used in rebuking the Israelites before his death when he recalled the reaction of the Israelites to the report of the Spies some forty years previously. This passage brings the following questions:
(a) Why, at the early stage of the rebuke, did Moses recall the sin of the Spies, but not that of the Golden Calf?
(b) Why is the word 'hatred' included in this account, but not in the main one in Number 13-14?
(c) How was recalling the Spies relevant to the people he was rebuking? All those who had been involved had already died in the previous forty years in the wilderness.
*For an attempt to answer these questions, see my contribution to the Shema Yisrael website for Devarim 5761.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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