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Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Two: Make you Clean

Here on the Third Day of Awe, we are contemplating the second of nine injunctions from 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.

So. Why wash you, make you clean? Why is this two things? Well, and based on the evidence of my children, it is evidently completely possible to wash one’s hands before dinner and yet arrive at the table with dirty hands. It is, in fact, possible to arrive at the table with hands still wet from the sink that are, nonetheless, unacceptable to the parents, and you must go back and use soap this time, and warm water. I’m serious. I can wait. Go on. You know, I managed to wash my hands just fine, and I didn’t splash water all over the wall, either.

Well, and actually in this opening bit, the Hebrew (rachatzu, chizaku, hasiru; wash you, cleanse you, put you away [your evil doings]) is I think intended to imply in the cleaning something closer to purification. It isn’t the word for ritual purification (which I think would be something like hitaharu, but I’m terrible at the grammar), so perhaps I’m on the wrong track here, but I think the cleansing that is being ordered smacks of the preparation of the sacrifice. Not to connote the killing part, but to connote the preparation for sanctity.

At any rate, it is clear to me that the washing is with an eye on the past, to rid yourself of the year that is ending, and the making clean is with an eye on the future, to prepare yourself for the year upcoming. And now that I think of it, it seems crucial: a day to say, if I want to achieve my goals for the year, I should prepare myself like this. If I want to, for instance, be less lazy about housework (as I ought to be a good deal less lazy about housework), it’s important, yes, to wash myself of that sin of laziness as best I can, but also to clean myself for the new task of industriousness. To both eradicate bad habits and inculcate good ones. The Rabbis say that a sin leads to another sin, and a good deed leads to another good deed, which again is one of those things that is as much empirical observation as moral suasion. Clear a mental space for the new tasks. Or an emotional space, should your tasks require it. Or, for that matter, a physical space: in YHB’s own house, my laziness in tidying the study table contributes to putting off the bills and other paperwork, as it becomes a double task: first clear the space, then answer the mail.

Which is not a bad metaphor for the Days of Awe, come to think of it, with our unpaid bills from the last year piled up (with, to be sure, the junk mail and the catalogues), and before we can really begin to address them, we have to clear off the table from the detritus of the year (the scribbled telephone messages that never got delivered, the game pieces found on the floor after the game was hastily shoved into its box, the newsletter of which half was very nearly read, the busted plastic that someone was going to glue back together into a toy, the—wait, is that a library book?) before we can begin again.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,