Yom Kippur & Isaiah: Ending Slavery

September 27, 2017 at 11:57 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Goittlieb

We do it every year on Yom Kippur. This Friday at sunset, observant Jews whose health permits will begin a 26-hour fast, accompanied by communal prayer Friday evening and all day Saturday.  One of the readings on Yom Kippur is a passage from second Isaiah1 in which the Israelites ask God:

We fasted; why did you not see?

          Inninu our bodies, but you did not notice!

inninu (עִנִּינוּ) = we overpowered, we subdued, we humiliated, we oppressed. (From the root verb anah, ענה.)

God replies:

Hey, on the day of your fasting, you meet [to do] business,

          and you beat all your laborers!

Hey, you fast with a lawsuit and a quarrel,

          and you strike with a wicked fist!

You cannot, with a fast like today,

          make your voice heard on high.

Is it [only] like this, the fast I would choose:

          a day of humans annot their bodies? (Isaiah 58:3-5)

annot (עַנּוֹת) = overpowering, subduing, humiliating, oppressing. (Also from the root verb anah.)

The divine objection is that while the Israelites are annot their physical appetites by fasting, they are also annot other people. God will pay attention only to people who behave morally toward other human beings.

Is not this the fast I would choose:

          Opening the shackles of wickedness,

breaking the harness ropes of the human yoke,

          and setting free those who are crushed?  (Isaiah 58:6)

Most books of the Bible accept slavery, and issue laws ameliorating it somewhat by providing for the emancipation of Israelite slaves (by redemption2 or after six years3), by limiting who can be sold as a slave4, and by giving all slaves, Israelite and foreign, the day of Shabbat and all festival days off from work.5

But in second Isaiah, God calls for slave-owning Israelites to free all their slaves. God will not pay attention to anyone who is annot other people by owning them as slaves.

Then God implies that neglecting anyone so poor as to be without food, shelter, or clothing is another form of annot. God continues the description of the fast God would choose:

Beggars, by Rembrandt

Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,

and bringing home the homeless poor?

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

and not hide yourself from your fellow.  (Isaiah 58:7)

This is a tall order for getting God’s attention. If I take it literally, I at least feel relieved that I have no slaves (or even employees), I never use my fists, and I am not quarreling with or suing anyone. But I would be afraid to invite a homeless stranger into my home unless I had a lot of friends there in case of emergency.

Taken less literally, the reading from second Isaiah encourages me to continue making donations to food banks, giving spare change to beggars, and donating money and goods to charities. It also reminds me that I am happy to pay taxes for programs that assist the poor.

But maybe I could do more about “opening the shackles of wickedness” and “setting free those who are crushed”. In the United States today slavery is illegal, but there are people living here without government papers. “Illegal aliens” who have no other home are not free. Many are oppressed and harassed by their employers or by government employees. Many do not dare complain about inhumane working conditions; what if they got deported? There is no American law to free them after six years of menial and insecure labor, so that they can pursue higher education and better jobs.

Freeing the oppressed resident aliens in America is not only the right thing to do, but the religious thing to do. The Bible repeatedly warns us not to “oppress the stranger”, i.e. resident alien.6 What can ordinary citizens do to free “illegal aliens” from annot? We can keep letting our elected officials know that all shackles are wicked, and that everyone deserves freedom and equality—and therefore legal status in their own country, the country where they have lived for years.

That is when you call and God answers,

            you cry out and [God] says, Here I am:

When you banish the human yoke,

            the pointed finger, and unjust speech. (Isaiah 58:9)

  1. Modern scholars agree that chapters 1-39 of the book of Isaiah were written in the 8th century B.C.E., when the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Chapters 40-66 are dated to either the 6th century B.C.E., during the Babylonian exile of the prominent families of Judah, or the 5th century, after the Persian Empire had swallowed the Babylonian Empire and given Jews permission to return to Jerusalem and build the second temple.
  2. Leviticus 25:35-37. See my post Mishpatim and Psalms 39 & 119: Foreigners.
  3. Deuteronomy 15:12-13. See my post Haftarat Mishpatim—Jeremiah: False Freedom.
  4. Deuteronomy 21:10-14. See my post Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1.
  5. Exodus 23:12 for Shabbat. Similar laws are given for each festival day when it is ordered.
  6. Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Deuteronomy 24:17, 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Zechariah 7:10.

 

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