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Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day One: Wash you

So, what we’re doing here is going through Isaiah 1:16-17

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

during the Days of Awe, nine injunctions for nine days (not counting yesterday, which was Rosh Hashanah and something else). By the way, for those who have forgotten or haven’t been around during Scripture chat on this Tohu Bohu, I’m using the KJV because I like to, and will use other translations as I find them useful or interesting. For instance, the KJV Wash you becomes the RSV Wash yourselves which makes explicit the plural form of the Hebrew verb. On the other hand, when Isaiah is quoting the Divine as saying wash, is he saying it to the Hebrews as a people or as persons? Let’s go back a bit in Isaiah:

Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; [it is] iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear [them]. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you…

So we wash because our hands are full of blood, specifically because the Divine will not hear our prayers whilst our hands are full of blood. Metaphorical blood, by the way. Metaphorical washing.

Digression: Well, and metaphorical washing unless you’re a full-immersion Baptist. Although I’m not sure that sprinkling is technically metaphorical washing, but it’s a physical sign of invisible grace; the invisible grace is doing the metaphorical washing. There is evidently some argument about whether the Hebrew (rachatzu) means bathing/immersion or just a sponge bath, which difference of definition probably has resulted in many murders. I hope we can agree here that whatever baptismal or tashlich practice you engage in as a physical symbol, it is the metaphorical washing that is important. Unless, you know, your hands are actually full of blood. In which case, please actually wash them before typing a comment. End Digression.

You know, back in that digression, I mentioned tashlich; I think that’s something to keep in mind, here. Just as tashlich asks us to throw our sins into the river to be carried away with the running water, Isaiah asks us to wash ourselves, to take all the things that make even our solemn meetings stink to Heaven and wash them. And in order to do that, we have to know what we are washing ourselves from. This seems to be a backward-facing injuction, on the first day of it, not just to generally wash ourselves but to specifically wash ourselves of our sins. To identify, in other words, which bits of our metaphorical selves need metaphorical washing.

This is where that plural part comes in: I think that Isaiah is saying wash you to the community, not to the individuals within it—as it is the community whose solemn meetings stink so badly. Now, of course, a community of people who need washing will need washing as a community, but it’s also true that there are stains on the community that may not be stains on the individuals within it. We walk that balance during the days of awe. We confess our individual sins—lies, disrespect, violence—but we do so as a community. Here, I think, is something else: setting ourselves individually to wash our community sins.

What are those community sins? Lies, disrespect, violence. Much the same as the individual sins, only the lies we tell ourselves as a community are harder to resist, the disrespect of the community is far more deadly, and the violence of the community even more damaging to itself. Our besetting sin, here in my congregation, is probably complacence, although greed is likely a contributor. And lies, of course, the things we tell ourselves about ourselves and about outsiders. To wash ourselves of those things means we have to make ourselves aware of them, to see them, to scrub them, to scrape them off of us, to ready ourselves for a new year without them, as best we can.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.