Having just commemorated Tisha b’Av, the day which marks the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem, we enter into the seven weeks of consolation leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Each Shabbat morning, beginning tomorrow, we will read a section from the book of Isaiah, written some 2500 years ago to console the Jewish exiles in Babylonia. Isaiah promises the people that if they repent and follow the rules, God will forgive them and return them to the land of Israel. Each year I am both comforted and troubled by these haftarah readings. Isaiah seems to be “blaming the victims” for their situation, and putting its resolution squarely in their own hands. It’s nice to feel empowered and in control, and to be assured that if we will just behave better everything will be alright. But experience teaches us that life is not that simple. So how are we to learn from this ancient text, and what message does Isaiah send to us across the centuries?
The key is in knowing the audience. Today, we generally understand religious messages as aimed toward us as individuals. We hear a sermon and think about what it means to our personal behavior. Indeed, that is the focus of our High Holyday experience. But it’s important to note that Isaiah was not speaking to the Jews as individuals; he was addressing the collective Jewish People. From his perspective God didn’t exile the Jews from Israel because of individual sins; it happened because as so much of the society was sinning that the entire group was punished. When enough people are doing wrong, the good suffer along with the sinners.
That’s the message to take from Isaiah. While we need to start any type of repentance by looking at our personal behavior, that’s not enough. If our society is doing things that are wrong, we will be caught up in the consequences, even if we are personally righteous. Isaiah calls to each of us to lend our voices and our actions to moving society in the right direction. Bystanding is a sin. So, as you begin your personal accounting leading toward Yom Kippur, consider how you will be a more active part of making your community what you want it to be.