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July 12, 2013

Parshat Devarim

Isaiah 1:1-27

Moral Turpitude or Idolatrous Disloyalty?

The three Haftarot that are read on the Shabbatot between the fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz and the fast of Tisha B'Av are taken from the first chapters of the books of Jeremiah and Isaiah respectively. Jeremiah focuses on Israel's disloyalty to God, how Israel abandoned God and began to worship other gods. Jeremiah asks rhetorically what evil Israel's ancestors found in God that they substituted worthless deities for God and distanced themselves from God. In verse after verse, Jeremiah accuses the people of Israel of apostasy, of idolatry, of worshipping foreign gods, the product of their own hands. This apostasy is only made worse by being contrasted to all of God's benevolence, the years of caring for Israel in the wilderness, of protecting them, feeding them and bringing them safely to the land of Israel. Obliquely, Jeremiah points to the north as the direction from which God would bring punishment to those who have abandoned Him.

By contrast, this week's Haftarah from the first chapter of Isaiah, makes no reference at all to apostasy and idolatry, but instead emphasizes Israel's moral turpitude. In verse after verse, Isaiah rails against Israel. What need has God for all of Israel's sacrifices when Israel's hands are covered with blood and they have distorted justice. Society has oppressed the orphan and the widow. Thieves are so numerous that we work in consort with one another. Judges are easily bribed. Unlike Jeremiah, who merely hints at the impending punishment and demise of Israel in the first few chapters, Isaiah is clear and straightforward. God will take vengeance against His enemies.

Despite the harsh words Isaiah has for his contemporaries, he nonetheless ends on a positive note. God will restore judges, who, like in ancient times, will not distort justice and Jerusalem will be redeemed with justice and those who return to Jerusalem will be redeemed with righteousness.

The message of a hoped for redemption that concludes this week's Haftarah sustained our people through the long years of exile before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The warnings of the two prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah, are no less relevant today as they were 2500 years ago. We shudder when we read of corruption at all levels of government in Israel and hear that a past President of Israel has been convicted of rape. We are appalled when we read of what amounts to nothing less than paganism among a stratum of Israeli society, both young and old.

But, in keeping with the old rabbinic maxim that God sends the cure before sending the plague, the signs of hope and restoration are alive and well. Secular Israelis have been experimenting with new modalities of spirituality with deep roots in Jewish tradition. The most popular Israeli music finds its roots in ancient Piyyut (religious poetry of the middle ages) and every Friday night throughout the summer, several thousand secular Israelis gather at the Namal, the harborfront in Tel Aviv, for Kabbalat Shabbat services that combine the best of traditional texts with contemporary Israeli texts, set to the music of Shelomo Carlebach and a host of contemporary Israeli singers and musicians. This summer the phenomenon has spread to Jerusalem, where now several hundred secular Jews gather late Friday afternoon at the old Train Station in Baka to welcome Shabbat. Nor could we be prouder of the Israeli court system, from the local courts to the Supreme Court of Israel in the decisions they hand down that protect the poor and the disenfranchised. No, Israel is by no means perfect and there are still plenty of legal decisions that are decidedly unfair, but as we begin the final countdown to Tisha B'Av, we can take solace that the words of Isaiah are coming to fruition and Zion is indeed being redeemed in justice and those who have returned to our State of Israel to rebuild it are being guided by righteousness. And the renewed spirituality felt by all strata of Israeli society, both religious and secular can only grow to make Israel a stronger, more Jewish and more democratic state.

Shabbat Shalom

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lionel Moses. Rabbi Moses, a native of Toronto, was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1977, and hold degrees from the University of Toronto and a MA in Jewish Literature from JTS. He is currently a Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and Rabbi at Shaare Zion Congregation in Montreal, since August 1995. He has served pulpits in Alabama, New York, and California.

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