Flesh of Our Flesh?

isaiah_58Learn to do good, seek justice; relieve the oppressed. Uphold the orphan’s rights; take up the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:17)

This classic verse comes from the Haftarah portion for this Shabbat. It is the final so-called “Haftarah of affliction” coming annually on the Shabbat before the festival of Tisha B’Av. Beginning next week our prophetic portions will offer messages of consolation, reminding us that the path of return to righteousness is always open to us. Indeed, it is this very message that will guide us into the High Holiday season itself –  the season of our return.

As I read this passage this year, I was mindful of a very similar passage that will appear in the Haftarah of Yom Kippur, also from the book of Isaiah:

No, this is the fast that I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free and break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; to clothe when you see the naked, and never forget your own flesh (Isaiah 58:6-7).

In a way, these two similar Isaiah passages seem to represent spiritual bookends to the High Holiday season. These characteristically prophetic calls to justice and repentance guide us through our High Holiday journey, reminding us not only of our seemingly chronic hypocrisy but also of the eternally simple route to return: “learn to do good, free the oppressed, feed the hungry…”

As many of you know, our recently organized Fast for Gaza has cited Isaiah 58 as a kind of spiritual prooftext to our initiative. As it turns out, ever since we’ve launched this project I’ve been in a kind of dialogue with more than one correspondent over this particular verse. Several people have already written to me that we’ve misinterpreted Isaiah. It appears that for some, calling a Jewish fast in support of Gazan Palestinians rather than Jewish Israelis represents a betrayal of this prophetic imperative (not to mention the Jewish people.)  As one writer put it, “never forget your own flesh” means “charity begins at home.”

This criticism motivated me to do a bit of digging into the source material.  As it turns out the Hebrew word for “your flesh” – b’sarcha – can indeed refer to blood relations or kin. But interestingly, according to the Brown, Driver, Briggs Biblical Dictionary (p. 142), this term can also mean “all living beings” (occurring in this usage at least 13 times throughout the Bible.)

So, in fact, there is good, solid linguistic evidence to reject this narrow, tribal reading of Isaiah.  Now I’m certainly willing to admit that this passage might have referred only to fellow Israelites when it was originally written. But today we live in a fundamentally different time than the ancient Israelites. In our globalized, post-modern world, the Jewish community has become inter-dependent with others in profound and unprecedented ways.  Whether we are prepared to admit it or not, our Jewish security, our Jewish destiny is now irrevocably bound up with the destiny of all peoples and nations of the world.

I am well aware that this viewpoint represents a distinctly 21st century Torah. I also have no illusions that it will be a simple matter for the Jewish community to heed this call. Having only recently emerged from the ghetto, still living with a collective memory of anti-Semitism, still reeling from the trauma of the Holocaust, it will necessitate a radical shift in consciousness to understanding our place in the world in such a way.

It will not be easy, but I believe it will be essential.  It can no longer be us against them. At the end of the day, we are all one flesh.

3 thoughts on “Flesh of Our Flesh?

  1. YBD

    Okay, let’s say that to be concerned primarily with the welfare of your own people is “particularist” and “narrow”, and so, according to this thinking, Jews are responsible for all the hungry and miserable in the world. But, by what stretch of the imagination does this mean worrying about the welfare of your enemy? The Arabs of Gaza are the self-declared enemies of Israel and work daily for the eradication of Israel. This is what they proudly proclaim. Egypt also has a border with Gaza. The Egyptians are brother Arabs and Muslims, and as we are always told, all Muslims are brothers and all Arabs love one another, so therefore Egypt should be happy to supply Gaza with everything they want. So why aren’t they, and why is Israel responsible for providing a comfortable life (beyond mandatory humanitarian basics like food and medecine) to the Gazans who are in a state of war with Israel?

  2. Shirley Gould

    What this calls up for me is the essential purpose of the fast, of marches, of protests. Are they all just for P.R.? Is the purpose only to call attention to the situation? In what way does the action improve the situation? It troubles me, not just in relation to this fast, but in relation to all the protests against humanity’s problems. On the other hand, we must not sit idly by.

  3. Danielle Peshkin

    “Whether we are prepared to admit it or not, our Jewish security, our Jewish destiny, is now irrevocably bound up with the destiny of all peoples and nations of the world… it will necessitate a radical shift in consciousness to understanding our place in the world in such a way….It will not be easy, but I believe it will be essential. It can no longer be us against them. At the end of the day, we are all one flesh.”

    Thanks Rabbi Brant, for your always inspiring words.
    I’ve been thinking about the BTVS conference this weekend, my Palestinian friend’s reactions to it, and my own reactions to it.
    I understand and appreciate the strategic importance of both BTVS and JStreet, and care deeply about achieving real on-the-ground change in the Middle East, so I’ve been trying to figure out why I can’t bring myself to publicly endorse BTVS’s work. Why can’t I, for example, table at NYU for “Pro Israel Pro Peace”?
    It is always difficult, though necessary, to decide to when to sacrifice morality for strategic advantage in the long term advancement of your political goals. It’s equally difficult, though also necessary, to decide when sacrificing morality and justice for short term strategic gain will in fact harm the long term goal of establishing peace and justice.
    I know BTVS tries very hard to correctly navigate this dynamic, which is why I’ve really been struggling to figure out why I can’t support them.
    I think this blog post touches on the reason, and also begins to find a solution.
    The part of your post that I quoted above is, I think, key to the slight shift in message that could and should take the Jewish left beyond “Pro Israel Pro Peace.”
    For many reasons, I agree that this “not easy” shift is “essential” to the Jewish future, to the Palestinian future, and to the future “all living beings.”
    Again, thanks for this post and for the blog as a whole.


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