On Yom Kippur, we are privileged to read two haftarot: the first, read during Shacharit, is taken from Sefer Yishayahu, while the second haftarah, read at Mincha, is the entire Sefer Yonah. While the story of Yonah emphasizes Hashem’s capacity to forgive, the selection from the 57th and 58th prakim of Yishayahu is almost a tutorial as to what God expects of the people when they take upon themselves the strictures of a fast day. Clearly, both selections have lessons that are germane to this holy day and help us better understand the process of teshuva.
The powerful message directed to the nation by the navi Yishayahu, in the morning haftarah, opens with God’s encouraging cry “Solu, solu, Clear the path for the penitents who wish to return to Me.” With these opening words, Hashem expresses the idea that He not only desires our repentance but will help us succeed in that task by removing the potential obstacles that might stand in our way. But the selection continues in chapter 58 with God’s condemnation of Israel’s hypocrisy. “Tell the people of their sins,” God urges Yishayahu. “They seek me every day,” He tells the prophet, “like a nation that acts righteously.” And yet, they are not righteous. They ask why Hashem has ignored their fasts to which God answers that the fast is simply another hypocritical ploy, as they simply continue in their evil ways of strife, argument and ill-treatment of the weak.
In expressing these sentiments, God challenges us all to examine what we think being God fearing entails. Does it include only mode of dress or does it demand a certain mode of behavior as well? Does it focus upon the way we pray and communicate with God or does it embrace how we communicate with and speak to others? Is religiosity to be defined only by the hours spent behind a book or also by the time spent helping others? God eschews superficial externals and demands that our outward behavior reflect our inner goodness.
On Yom Kippur, when we wear white and try to emulate angels in our dress, it is important to realize that the dress is meant to remind us of the challenge we face after Yom Kippur. For this reason we would do well to pay heed to the haftarah in which Hashem demands that we break the shackles of wickedness and injustice; that we free the oppressed and feed the hungry; that we open our homes to the poor and clothe the naked.
Ultimately, our fast is meant to be a means to an end—and not an end in and of itself. It must be used as a day of reflection and sincere regret. It is meant to help us change our ways. So that our behavior on the eleventh of Tishrei is an improvement over the way we behaved before we heard these words of Yishayahu.
By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.