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Returning to Isaiah and the Days of Awe

A few years ago, I did the traditional thing (well, and traditional except for the blogging, I suppose) of going through the nine injunctions of Isaiah 16-17 over the nine days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So, following the words of R. Yochanan ben Bagbag that we should Turn it and turn it over again, for everything is in it, and contemplate it, and wax grey and old over it, and stir not from it, for thou canst have no better rule than this, we will do it all again, and see if we come to any different conclusions.

First, the text:

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.

One of the things that I have been focusing on during the end of Elul as we were heading in to the days of Awe, was how powerfully the liturgy drove home that we are not asking for such mercy as we deserve, but such mercy as the Divine, being merciful by nature, is willing to grant. We focus on our shortcomings, not our achievements. We do talk about the possibility of improvement, sure, and there is a logical sense in which if we were denied the inscription into the book of Life, we would not be able to improve… but really, the liturgy is about how we hope the Divine, not for our sake but for the sake of the Divine Name, will grant us the mercy we have not earned.

Does this fit it to that idea or not? How do we understand the Isaiah’s (or the Divine’s by means of Isaiah) injunction to wash yourselves, and how does that related to our merit? I would enjoy Gentle Readers’ thoughts on the subject.

I started by looking at the other instances of an injunction to wash yourself. It is in Leviticus, of course; there are a bunch of things (such as handling a corpse) that cause ritual impurity, and the person in such a state must wash himself (often specifically in water) before rejoining the community. Thus the mikvah. Now, it’s important to remember that ritual impurity does not imply moral squalor in Temple terms, although it’s also important to remember that ritual impurity is in fact sometimes used to imply moral squalor, so there’s that. While Isaiah’s context (yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood) seems to indicate moral squalor, I’m not altogether sure that washing in this context necessarily indicates moral splendor. Again, I’d be curious to know your thoughts.

A second context for washing is in hospitality; the good host washes the visitor’s feet, or causes them to be washed. In this context, the injunction to wash yourselves can be viewed within the metaphor of approaching the Heavenly Gates, which are (as we all know) open during the Days of Awe. As we enter the foyer of the Divine, as it were, we are told to wash ourselves, as a guest would do. Or not, because we are not offered a servant to wash us, but told to wash ourselves; perhaps this underscores the humility of our place.

There’s another place that we are told about washing, though, that comes to mind, and that’s also connected with the Day of Judgment. After the ceremony of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16, both Aaron (who kills the goat chosen for the sin offering) and the “fit man” who takes the scape goat laden with the sins of the people out into the wilderness are commanded to wash themselves after they are done, as is a third fellow who burns the flesh of the offerings. And after the washing, we read:

(Lev 16:29-30) And [this] shall be a statute for ever unto you: [that] in the seventh month, on the tenth [day] of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, [whether it be] one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you: For on that day shall [the priest] make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, [that] ye may be clean from all your sins before the LORD.

It’s the same commandment for the priest, and for the man who carries the carcasses out to the pit for burning, and for the man who takes the scapegoat. And for us: Wash you. That you may be clean from all your sins before the Divine.

There isn’t any particular merit in being fit to lead the scapegoat away. Other than being willing to do it, I suppose. It’s an interesting choice to be, not the scapegoat myself, but a sort of usher to the scapegoat. To take the sin-laden goat out of the community, but to come back to it. To do this frankly stupid thing that may just make us all feel better, and to return afterward, having done it. Knowing, presumably, that the sin-laden goat didn’t take anything away, didn’t really carry the sins of the community, didn’t magic away people’s problems. But also knowing, presumably, that something did happen, that people did feel different afterward. And then to wash, and come back to the community.

I guess that’s my idea for this year, for this first day of Awe: washing is what we do to prepare to return to the community. And that, too, is what Yom Kippur is for.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


> we are not asking for such mercy as we deserve, but such mercy as the Divine, being merciful by nature, is willing to grant

Huh, I think of mercy as fundamentally something that one does not *deserve* -- what you deserve is called "justice", and insofar as mercy is the opposite of justice, it is always undeserved.

(Maybe mercy is not the opposite of justice, but that seems to be how I think of it. I mean, there's injustice, which is also the opposite of justice, and which is different from mercy. But insofar as justice is when you get what you deserve -- see, it's right there in the definition, or at least my definition -- then perhaps injustice and mercy are when you don't get what you deserve, just in one case it's bad and in the other it's good.)

Well, and I largely agree. I do think it's worth underscoring, though, that there are lots of cases where we imagine that people are "worthy" of mercy (or clemency, or leniency, or whatever), that they deserve a break, or should get a second chanceā€¦ and other people, not so much.


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