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Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Five: Learn to do well

And on the Sixth Day of Awe, we start the second verse:

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)

The word lamad (in this case limdu, the imperative plural) means both to learn and to teach, the two not being entirely separable ideas. Sometimes the word is translated study, as in the famous verse from the next chapter of Isaiah v’lo yil’m’du od milchama, and they shall study war no more. The second word, haytayv, can mean well or rightly. Because grammar sticklers (such as YHB) do the explodey-head thing with good and well, it’s probably better to translate this as Study to do rightly, although of course then you lose the magnificent KJV rhythms.

Digression: You could, of course, use learn to do right, but for some of us the whole grammar-scold explodey-head thing is actually not as distracting as the whole Jessica Rabbit thing. Not to mention the Jay Ward thing. I’m just saying, while do right could be an accurate translation, the connotations are not altogether what we are looking for. End Digressions.

I do think it’s interesting that Isaiah (who is passing along the message from the Divine) doesn’t tell us to do rightly but to study to do rightly. This is in keeping what I was on about yesterday, that it takes some preparation to cease to do evil. It makes sense, then, that it would take some study to do rightly. Yoda may insist that there is no try, only do, but both as a motivational technique and as a model of the universe, this is incorrect. There is a lot more than do.

For one thing, while sometimes the correct action is obvious, often enough it is not, and requires study. Your Humble Blogger wrote a note called What do I do now? in—oh, goodness gracious, in 2003—that posited that a study of philosophy assists us in the pattern-matching necessary to decide right action. I still think that’s true; putting in some positive thought about the nature of knowledge and of the universe prepares us to categorize situations and act on them. From the point of view of observant Judaism, of course, it is not thought about the nature of knowledge and the universe, but study of the Law and the Sages that prepares us. Perhaps it is meditation that prepares you, by centering you or by opening your perception. Or if you think politically (and YHB, of course, admires political thinking) it is not possible to have right policy action without study, nor when you have decided on right policy is it possible to implement that policy without study. And we’ll see in the rest of the verse that Isaiah does encompass public policy in the sphere of right action.

Doing rightly requires work and thought. Isaiah is emphasizing this: it’s not instinct, it’s not purely empathy and lovingkindness, it’s not inspiration. Those things are great, those things are necessary, but they are not sufficient. We must learn to act rightly, and keep learning. And these Days of Awe are an excellent time for that study.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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