Haftarah for Yom Kippur–Jeremiah: Tearing Off Yokes

April 12, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Posted in Jeremiah, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on September 12, 2010.)

Is this the fast I would choose:

a day for humans to overpower their bodies?

Is it bowing one’s head like a bullrush,

and spreading sackcloth and ashes for a bed? …

Isn’t this the fast I would choose:

to open shackles of injustice,

to break the ropes of a yoke,

and to set free the abused,

and to tear off every yoke?

Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry,

and to bring home the homeless poor?

When you see a naked person, you must clothe him,

and not hide yourself from your fellow-human.

(Jeremiah/Yesheyahu 58:5-7)

motah, mot = a yoke (the part that is a bar across the beast’s neck), a carrying pole; shaking, slipping, tottering

This Saturday is Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) as well as Shabbat (the sabbath).  The Jewish cycle of Torah readings takes a break from Moses’ final oration in Deuteronomy/Devarim, and during the long day of fasting and praying there are four traditional readings:

♦ a description of ancient rituals for Yom Kippur (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:1-34)

♦a declaration that doing good is more important than fasting without reforming our behavior (Isaiah/ Yeshayahu 57:14-58:14)

♦rules about forbidden sexual partners (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:1-30)

♦and the entire book of Jonah/Yonah.

By the end of the afternoon, Jonah provides some comic relief, which makes its message easier to swallow.  But Isaiah, at mid-day, always makes me uncomfortable.  I thought fasting from sunset to sunset was hard enough.  How can I correct injustices, free people who’ve been abused, share my food with the hungry, bring the homeless into my house, and clothe the naked?  That’s too much for me!

Well, actually I do share my food with the hungry, since I donate to a program for feeding the homeless whenever I buy groceries at my local natural foods store.  I’m happy to pay taxes for government programs to give disadvantaged people housing and clothing, and this year I will add some private donations.  I’m making an effort to greet beggars the way I greet other human beings, and to give them spare change instead of looking the other way.  So maybe I can do verse 58:7 after all.

But verse 58:6 (the middle verse above) seems more difficult.  How can I liberate people from injustice, abuse, and every other yoke?  I make an effort to be fair and to avoid abusing people myself, but Isaiah asks me to go farther than that.

As a noun, a motah or mot (which has different root letters than the homophone in Hebrew meaning “die”) is a yoke bar or a carrying pole, and also a symbol of oppression.  When Isaiah asks us to remove it, he is asking us to unburden those who are overburdened, those who are laboring to go forward under the burden imposed on them by their genes, other people, society, or just bad luck.  So many of us are overburdened by a disability, a disease, an addiction, the death of a loved one, discrimination, abuse and its lingering effects, a difficult family member, the loss of a job.

In other words, don’t tell people it’s their own fault that they’re overburdened.  Help them.  And if you yourself are overburdened, tear off your own yoke—even if you have to ask for help to break the ropes.

As a verb, mot means to shake, slip, or totter—so much so that you’re likely to fall over.  To tear off every mot would be to get rid of the events that, like earthquakes, make people slip and fall.

I don’t have the power to reverse the current recession and bring everyone into perfect physical and mental health.  But if I stay aware and think, I might develop the power to speak more wisely when someone might be shaken, to cooperate so that nobody gets confused or left behind, to avoid tempting others onto the wrong path, and to warn people kindly when they are heading onto shaky ground.

Learning these skills is not easy.  But after all, I am supposed to be my brother’s keeper.

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