Torah Thursday: God gets surly

I’m always impressed by just how good the haftarot are for special occasions (Just wait for the Yom Kippur Torah Thursday). This Saturday is also the first day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz. As such, we drop the normal haftarah reading from the book of Samuel in favor of the new month reading from the book of Isaiah.

Increasingly, it seems to me, mainstream Judaism in the United States is centered around one value: promoting political suport for the State of Israel. I’ll argue this point in a bit more detail in the future, but to be clear, i’m not saying that Jews in the United States don’t live rich and multifaceted spiritual lives. Rather, it seems to me that mainstream Jewish organizations – and worrisomely, more and more Jews – define their identity primarily by their relationship with the State of Israel.

God, though, does not share these concerns over physical territory. In the opening of the haftarah that we read at the beginning of the new month:

Thus said the Lord:
The heaven is My throne
And the earth is My footstool:
Where could you build a house for Me,
What place could serve as My abode?

God’s domain is heaven and earth, not any one particular location or territory. So if God is not invested in geography, then what does God value? Fortunately for us, we get that in the next verses:

 As for those who slaughter oxen and slay humans,
Who sacrifice sheep and immolate dogs,
Who present as oblation the blood of swine,
Who offer incense and worship false gods —
Just as they have chosen their ways
And take pleasure in their abominations,
So I will choose to mock them,
To bring on them the very thing they dread.

One may make all the oxen and sheep sacrifices (two particularly high-level sacrifices) in the world. But no pious ritual can cleanse you from the sin of killing humans or practicing cruelty. Once again, God is telling us not to use His name or His words as an excuse to be cruel to other humans in our midsts.

Of course, not everyone is prepared to receive this message. But God has a message for them as well:

Your kinsmen who hate you,
Who spurn you because of Me, are saying,
“Let the Lord manifest His Presence,
So that we may look upon your joy.”
But theirs shall be the shame.

Those who choose to justify the actions of the State of Israel in the name of God often declare that Israel’s successes – be they in war, technology, or economy – are proof of its divine providence. You can practically hear them say: “Well, if God is on your side, then why doesn’t He show himself? Throw down the lightning, open up the earth (as He does in this week’s Torah reading), and swallow us whole?”

Isaiah here warns us not judge things as they are, but as they will be in the world to come. In the meantime, he pushes us to work towards realizing that world in our own lives through kindness and justice.


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