Moses calls everyone together. The writer of the text enunciates who is standing before God, then and now: tribal leaders, elders, officials, children, wives, strangers, the bank president and the welfare mother, the PhD and the high school dropout, the cop, the perp, all watching, all partaking. When we came in triumph with the Torah to our new house, I wanted to mimic the exit from Mitzraim, griping, whining, what have you brought us to, but the moment overwhelmed me, the knock-down-one-in-a-lifetime high wouldn’t let me play at griping. What a huge experience.
Moses’ congregation was originally made of slaves, everyone frightened, confused, and few believing the journey would end well. The constituency here is much the same: mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, those who suffer from ulcers and those who cause them, those who have nightmares and those who create them; in other words; us.
And the message? what is the lat, the ultimate message, the last voice you will hear in the Torah? Not the laws of kashrut, not the fine points of sacrifice or the bone-deep, rock-bottom ethic of Jewish law, how to treat slaves or judge adulterers, not even the Ten Commandments. Jewish basic: Choose Life. This fast we are doing had no taint of masochism or life-denial. ITs purpose in moderate and unromantic. We are never expected to be martyrs, which is why we did Kol Nidre yesterday. Evil is offered death is offered, pain is offered, suffering is offered. We are to choose life. God says.
The original reading for this day is from Leviticus and it involves the elaborate care to be taken by priests as they serve in the ancient temple. Many Orthodox and other congregations use this reading, holding up the punctilious and exacting instructions a to sacrifice to be made, animal and first fruit, grain, wine, and oil. If we have done the sacrifice perfectly, we will be rewarded. We are please that we have fasted. We are pleased an satisfied that we have prayed.
To this, the Haftarah thunders with Isaiah’s incredibly powerful poetic wrath. All the outward forms of prayer, he says, all the inward forms of wanting, wishing, meaning well, all the yearning and spirituality, however lofty, are nothing in the face of hungry neighbors, anyone sick or grieving. Your business is no business on this day, and when you do business, it must be done with an honor and care for others as punctilious as your sacrifices were to have been. Against practice, prayer and the exact moment the sun sets, Isaiah balances passion for truth and the daily miracle of simple goodness, not easy against the grinding down of habit, age, sorrow, and the putting by of dreams.