Elul Reflection: 20 Elul 5778

20 Elul 5778
31 August 2018

“Is this the fast I desire? A day for one to starve one’s body? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day that God wills?” (Isaiah 58:5). 

We’re a few hours into the Yom Kippur fast – the headache is coming on, the stomach beginning to rumble. How dare Isaiah suggest this fast won’t be acceptable to God! What chutzpah!

But we misunderstand the prophet’s words, just as we did a few weeks ago just before the Tisha b’Av fast, when thought we heard Isaiah say that God does not want us coming to Temple or praying. It’s not that God does not want these acts at all. It’s just that our fasts, our sacrifices, and our prayers are not sufficient to satisfy God’s will if we are not simultaneously taking action to improve the lives of those around us who are less fortunate. This is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free…to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin” (Isa. 58:6-7).

Our rituals are but pious posturing—empty and offensive to the Divine—if we do not also make a priority of building a more just and compassionate society for all of God’s creations. God wills this too, as we read countless times in the Torah, and in the ethics of later Jewish literature. 36 times the Torah commands us to look after the stranger, the widow, and the orphan—the most vulnerable in society. The Torah commands us to pursue justice, to feed the needy from the corners of our fields, to be stewards of the earth, and to give our animals a day of rest. The Pesach Haggadah beseeches us, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah teaches that if a man feeds only his family in the sukkah, and not the poor, he has failed to perform the mitzvah [of rejoicing on the festival]. Which is more important: the ritual mitzvot or the ethical mitzvot? God does not want either/or. God wants both/and. Only then, says the prophet, “shall your light shine in darkness.” Your fast will ease, for “Adonai…will slake your thirst…and give strength to your bones.” 

May we shine and be strengthened this season, responding to a more complete understanding of God’s will and call, as enjoined in our sacred texts and expounded by the chutzpahdik prophet on the holiest day of our Jewish year.

--Rabbi Nicole Roberts

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