Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by floods. (Isaiah 1:6)
These opening verses from Isaiah, are part of the Haftarah portion for this Shabbat. It is the final of the so-called “Haftarot of Affliction” that precede Tisha B’Av – the most grief-stricken of Jewish festivals.
Like the Biblical book of Lamentations, our Haftarah is filled to overflowing with fierce divine judgement and and overwhelming sense of communal self-pity and shame:
Ah sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! They have forsaken the Lord, Spurned the Holy One of Israel, Turned their backs (on God). (1:4)
Beginning next week, however, our Haftarah portions will offer messages not of affliction, but of healing and consolation. From this point on, these portions will guide us all the way into the High Holiday season itself. In a sense, the Jewish calendar is currently in a spiritual rhythm that moves us on a journey from pain to healing.
I particularly struck that unlike the book of Lamentations, which is essentially a litany of pain and shame, this week’s Haftarah actually offers a quintessentially prophetic call to justice:
Wash yourselves clean; put away your evil from before My eyes; cease to do wrong.
Learn to do good, seek justice; relieve the oppressed. Uphold the orphan’s rights; take up the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
In other words, our present woes can be directly traced to our own acts of injustice. As I read these verses, I’m reminded of the oft-made observation that the strength of a society can only be judged by the extent to which it protects its weakest citizens. In much the same way, this week’s Haftarah teaches that our own vulnerability is irrevocably bound up with the most vulnerable members of our community.
As it turns out, the Haftarah for Yom Kippur comes from the book of Isaiah as well. I like to think of these two prophetic portions as “spiritual bookends” to this season. At the end of the Days of Awe, we will end with the same essential message with which we began – the way to healing and redemption is really quite simple:
No, this is the fast that I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free and break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; to clothe when you see the naked, and never forget your own flesh (Isaiah 58:6-7).