Tales of Spiritual Breakthrough
This coming Tuesday evening, September 22, 2015, the 26-hour fast of Yom Kippur begins. The next morning, Jews everywhere will read the outcry of the Prophet Isaiah, challenging and disrupting the official liturgy of Yom Kippur:
“Is this the fast I, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, demand of you? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry? To break off the handcuffs that oppressive power locks upon its prisoners?”
And on Wednesday evening, just as the fast is ending, there begins the Muslim Great Feast of Eid al-Idha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. It echoes the story of how Ibrahim prepared to offer up his son Ismail in response to God’s calling, and how at the last moment the Holy Voice told him to relent and he offered up a ram instead.
This memory, of course, shares the story that Jews have just last week retold on Rosh Hashanah– with the differences that often arise when different branches of a family remember a powerful family story.("Which son was it?")
Traditionally, on Eid al-Idha Muslim families buy a lamb to be slaughtered (as an echo of Ibrahim's ram), and divide its meat in thirds — one-third to the immediate family, one-third to the extended family, one-third to the poor — a teaching that might be heard as “Do not kill your children; feed the poor!”
A teaching to us all about war and compassion. A physical act carrying the same message as the Isaiah Haftarah for Yom Kippur.
The connections between the two sets of festivals beckon us into a new way of treating Torah-reading as an avenue toward seeking "tshuvah" (turning ourslves in a new, more ethical direction).
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews tradtionally read the story of Abraham's expulsion of Ishmael from the family, and Ishmael's near-death in the wilderness, saved at the last moment by God's making visible a hidden wllspring. On the second day, the reading is about Abraham's willingness tp make a burnt-offering of his other son, Isaac, and Isaac's near-death on the mountain -- saved by God's Voice at the last moment.
Later in the Torah, there is a story of how the two sons reconnect (Gen. 25:7-11). After their father Abraham dies, they come togethr to bury him. For the first time, the Torah refers to them as partners. We read this passage in the regular rhythm of the regular Shabbats. But this story is not lifted up on a special festival, as are the two stories we read on Rosh Hashanah.
It would be a true act of healing to read this brief passage on Yom Kippur. Especially in a generation when there is a great deal of conflict between some of the descendants of Isaac and of Ishmael, this tale of reconciliation
would be a powerful calling to do tshuvah. If the death of their father calls them together, can the bloody deaths of our children at each other's hands call us to compassion instead of revenge?
Yom Kippur is supposed to recall us to the path of loving-kindness. And its prophetic reading from Isaiah does -- if we reawaken his passion.
Just two weeks ago, the Living Isaiah took life again for me. I was asked to speak out to our own generation his challenge to a crowd who 2500 years ago thought they were observing Yom Kippur. And I was asked to use my own translation of his challenge.
The occasion was a conference in England called by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC -- an organization founded by Prince Philip in 1995) , to explore what the world’s religious communities would set for the UN’s goals of “Sustainable Development.” From all over the world, from China to the Americas to Africa and Europe, there gathered Taoists and Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, Muslims and Sikhs, Christians and Jews.
To begin the conference, we met in the City of Bristol’s chapel of the Lord Mayor, who was herself there, dressed in medieval finery. So was a multiracial children’s choir, drawn from Bristol’s neighborhoods. It was in a way a fitting setting to speak Isaiah’s truth to both the powerful and the disempowered.
After I read / spoke Isaiah, many of the participants and the Lord Mayor herself came up to me to say that through my translation, the ancient words had taken on much fuller meaning than what was written in their Bibles.
To remain alive, the Prophets must always speak again and again through the Shofar, the Ram's Horn, blown anew in each generation.
So I offer you my translation below – if you wish, to read it in your synagogue on Wednesday morning. Or just to read it -- aloud! -- amidst your friends, your co-workers, your family.
And even more, I encourage you to watch "Isaiah Lives!" a video that combines my translation set in the midst of extraordinary chant and music by Cantor Abbe Lyons and Will Fudeman, art work by Michael Bogdanow, and scenes from a world in turmoil and the world of calm. These sounds and pictures enormously enrich the text.
To see the video, please click to --
Isaiah breaks into the official liturgy of Yom Kippur
The Prophetic Reading for the Fast of Yom Kippur,
Blessing before the Haftarah:
Blessed are You, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh,
The Interwoven Breath of Life,
Who in every generation
Breathes prophetic truth
Through the throats of human beings --
As we blow outcry
Through the Great Ram’s Horn. (Ameyn)
And God said: Open up, open up, Clear a path! Clear away all obstacles From the path of My People! For so says the One Who high aloft forever dwells, Whose Name is Holy:
I dwell on high, in holiness, And therefore with the lowly and humiliated, To breathe new breath into the humble, To give new heart to the broken-hearted.
For your sin of greed Through My Hurricane of Breath YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh I smashed you. Worse: I hid My face, withheld My Breath.
Yet I will not do battle against you forever, I will not be angry with you forever. From Me comes the breath that floats out to make all worlds. I breathe the breath of life, I am the Breath of Life.
When you wander off the path as your own heart, wayward, takes you. I see the path you need —— and I will heal you. I will guide and comfort you With words of courage and of consolation For those who mourn among you. Peace, peace … shalom, shalom!… to those who are far and near, Says the Breath-of-Life —- And I will heal you.
But the wicked are like a troubled sea Which cannot rest, Whose waters toss up mire and mud. There is no peace, said my God, For the wicked.
Cry out aloud, don’t hold back, Lift up your voice like the shofar! Tell My people what they are doing wrong, Tell those who call themselves the “House of Jacob” their misdeeds. For day after day they go out searching for Me, They take some kind of pleasure in getting to know My ways —- As if they were a people that actually did righteous deeds And never ignored the just rulings of their God.
They keep asking Me for the rules of justice As if they would take delight in being close to God.
They say: “Why is it that we have fasted, and You don’t see our suffering? We press down our egos —- but You don’t pay attention!”
Look! On the very day you fast, you keep scrabbling for wealth; On the very day you fast, you keep oppressing all your workers.
Look! You fast in strife and contention. You strike with a wicked fist.
You are not fasting today in such a way As to make your voices heard on high. Is that the kind of fast that I desire? Is that really a day for people to “press down their egos”?
Am I commanding you to droop your heads like bulrushes
And lie around in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast day,
The kind of day that the God of the Burning Bush would wish?
This is the fast that I desire:
Break off the handcuffs that oppressive power
Locks upon its prisoners!
Untie the ropes of the yoke!
Let the oppressed go free,
And break off every yoke!
Share your bread with the hungry.
Bring the poor, the outcasts, to your home.
When you see them naked, clothe them;
They are your flesh and blood;
Don’t hide yourself from them!
Then your light will burst through like the dawn;
Then when you need healing it will spring up quickly;
Then your own righteousness will march ahead to guard you.
And a radiance from YHWH will reach out behind to guard you.
Then, when you cry out, YHWH/ the Breath of Life will answer;
Then, when you call, God will say: “Here I am!”
If you banish the yoke from your midst,
If you rid yourself of scornful finger-pointing
And words of contempt;
If you open up your life-experience to the hungry
And soothe the life that has been trampled under foot,
Then even in darkness your light will shine out
And your moments of gloom turn bright as noonday.
Then the InterBreath of Life will always be your guide,
Will make your breathing easy when your mouth and throat are parched --
And strengthen your bones when they are weary.
Then you shall be like a garden given water,
Like a wellspring whose waters never fail.
Those who spring from you shall rebuild the ancient ruins
And you shall lay foundations for the coming generations.
You shall be called “Those who mend torn places,”
You shall be called “Those who build lanes to live in.”
If you refrain from trampling My Sabbatical time
And from being busy-busy
On My restful day and in the fuller rhythm --
Through My year of releasing Earth from overwork;
If you will not only call these times of Pause delightful
But also turn far from your usual way
And set aside your driven-work and chatter
To be yourselves the rays by which God’s Holiness
Can turn this world into a radiant joy —-
Then indeed you will find delight in YHWH.
Then —- when you feed others —- I will let you eat your fill.
For then —- when you have joined the lowly —-
I will set you all with Me, in the Majesty of Nurture
Astride the heights of Earth.
Now! For this word comes from the Mouth that Breathes all life.
In addition to the explicit content of the Haftarah, there are two important aspects of its form:
Isaiah proclaims that he is interrupting and disrupting the conventional flow of the Yom Kippur liturgy. He sees and says that “Even in the day you fast, you lift your fists in violence” – against his outcry.
He begins with a “high” that turns out to be a fake, then plunges into the depths of the oppressed and humiliated, calls for solidarity with them, and then as people do join in that solidarity celebrates a true “high” of exaltation for the whole society.
On the High Holy Days we realize that we do not know who in the next year will fruitfully live, who will sorrowfully die. And we call ourselves to account: that in three ways we can make more gentle whatever our fate will be: tfilah, tshuvah, and tzedakah.
That is, by deep and heart-felt prayer; by atoning for our misdeeds --turning from them and toward “at-one-ment” with the Breath of Life, the whole human community, and all our wounded Earth; and by giving gifts of financial help to those who are pursuing eco-social justice.
In that spirit, we ask you to help support the work of The Shalom Center, by clicking on the “Donate” button in the left margin.