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Isaiah, Eliphaz and Bildad

So, the second Day of Awe is almost over.

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.

I said, yesterday, that I liked to think of the injunction to wash as being part of returning to the community, such as the requirement to wash after ritual impurity. A year ago, I made the distinction between washing away past sins, and making one’s self clean for the future. Today… well, I’m not sure.

I did what I do, when I’m not sure about a verse, and go clicky-clicky through the concordance, which is why I like the Blue Letter Bible site so much. It’s a kind of Bibliomancy for me, really. Anyway, the word in question (zakah) is used only eight times in the Scripture. And of those other seven, five are used in a negative sense. In Psalms 119:9, the Psalmist asks Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? and answers by taking heed thereto according to thy word. There are people who do so, the Psalmist declares, and they are Blessed, and he hopes to become one of them. He has some difficulty, but he still clearly believes that it is possible.

That’s not the opinion of Job’s friend Eliphaz, who (in Job 15:14) asks rhetorically What is man, that he should be clean? Or the opinion of Job’s other friend Bildad, who (in Job 25:4) asks rhetorically How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman? Sure, those characters exist to be wrong, but they are echoed by the writer of Proverbs, who (in Proverbs 20:9 asks Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin? And again with the rhetorical question is Micah (6:11) asking Shall I count them pure with the wicked balances, and with the bag of deceitful weights?

Are all seven of the other instances rhetorical questions? No, they are not. We have two left, both from the Psalms. And, like Micah, they don’t speak generally about the possibility of cleansing, but about whether certain people have been cleansed. The Psalmist, however, is as usual talking about himself. In 73:13, he says Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. Meaning not that he had failed to cleanse his heart, as far as I can tell, but that doing so gave him no immediate satisfaction, as the wicked were still flourishing. And in 51:4, he says, in his woe, Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. I do not understand, now, why the word for cleansed is used to describe the Divine Judge in this case, but I haven’t studied the Psalms. At any rate, I think it’s clear that those are the only two cases where successful cleansing takes place described with this word.

What does this tell us? Well, one reading would be that when Isaiah tells us to make ourselves clean he doesn’t expect us to succeed at that. Does that help? Why would he say it—why would he turn a word used primarily to talk about how people fail at a thing, and use it for the only time in Scripture as an imperative? If we both, Isaiah and I, know that I am not going to actually make myself clean with all my washing, why tell me to do it at all?

I’m going to say that for me, this year, the answer is: because Divine mercy is not dependent on our deserving it. We can’t, honestly, ever get to the point where we deserve to be inscribed in the Book of Life because we are so meritorious. Not because of people are so terrible, but because the reward is so great. Life! Life! How could anyone do enough to deserve that? How could we get wash ourselves clean enough to be clean enough for that?

But that doesn’t mean that we should, like Eliphaz and Bildad, just shrug and say how can humans be clean? and give up. I think—this year—that Isaiah is saying don’t be like them, but keep trying. There’s a verse from the Avot that I keep going back to, in the context of social justice. Rabbi Tarfon says The work is not upon thee to finish, nor art thou free to desist from it, and I have always found that very moving. In this case, I think, Isaiah is saying: you aren’t going to be clean, but you aren’t free to desist from cleaning.

In some ways, I think that’s a great attitude to take up in the Days of Awe. Look, in two weeks, I’m not going to be a different person. I will still struggle with my laziness and pride; I will still have bad habits and foolishness. I shouldn’t fool myself that this year, as my prayers rise to the gates of Heaven, as the Divine seals the Book, I will be finished with my work of t’shuvah or t’zedakah or t’filah. Or that I will ever be finished with them. Isaiah is not holding out that false hope. But neither is he letting me off the hook. It’s impossible; so what? The reward is not contingent on my success, only on my accepting the task.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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