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 Ph.D. 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-once-in-a- lifetime high wouldn’t let me play at griping. What a huge experience.
Moses’s congregation was originally made of slaves, everyone frightened, confused, and few believing the journey would end well.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 last, 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 is 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 as to sacriﬁces to be made, animal and ﬁrst fruit, grain, wine, and oil. If we have done the sacriﬁce perfectly, we will be rewarded. We are pleased that we have fasted. We are pleased and 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.
The Haftarah comments on the Torah passage. Sometimes it’s as plain as Rosh Hashanah’s Lady Wants a Baby; sometimes it’s obscure. Sixteen hundred years after Abraham raised his hand with the knife in it, Moses has arisen and given us a set of laws; the Jews have chosen a king, Saul, whose sacriﬁce is his sanity; another king, David, and a huge sacriﬁce of family. It’s in his reign that Israel and the Hebrews are ﬁrst mentioned by outside sources, Solomon comes, and then a series of kings often of descending merit. Assyria raises its banners and in 722 BCE Samaria falls and in 700 the kingdom of Israel ceases to exist. Assyria provides the ﬁrst Diaspora. “Seed of Abraham,” Isaiah says to us in the alternative Rosh Hashanah Haftarah, “you, who I drew from the ends of the earth.” We have the companion image with the one that God has given in the parsha: “I will make you as many as the sand on the shore, as the stars in the heaven; I will make of you a great nation.” Now, from the ends of the earth, scattered as sand by wind and as the stars by the explosion that started us, here we are, seven Diasporas later, davening together.