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   by Jacob Solomon

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'Hear G-d's Word, you captains of Sodom! Listen to the teachings of our G-d, your people of Gomorroh!' (Isaiah 1:10)

Guided Tour…

The extremely powerful and dramatic opening verses of the Book of Isaiah form this Haftara. Isaiah was a navi: an individual who personally received the word of G-d and conveyed it to the people. Isaiah himself lived at around 725 BCE. That was when both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were going through spiritual and moral decline. In consequence, his earlier prophesies - messages directly from G-d - foresaw the exiles of both the Northern Kingdom of Israel under Assyria (which took place in his lifetime), and ultimately (39:6-7) the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

The Book of Isaiah also contains deeply inspiring words of encouragement, applying to both the Israelites and the world at large. It repeatedly stresses that the Israelite exiles and Divine punishments suffered will be temporary, and that G-d will eventually redeem His people and settle them permanently in His Land. Not only will they live under His constant care and guidance, but they will also raise the moral and ethical levels of the other nations.

The text forming the Haftara implies the strong message that the real threat to the lives of Judah and Jerusalem was not simply the might of Assyria, the great international power of the time, but the nation's own sin in abandoning the Torah, and its lack of faith in G-d. The Northern Kingdom of the Ten Tribes was hurtling down in its spiritual decay, with defeat and exile on the way, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah - the subject of Isaiah's opening prophecy - was moving along the same downhill path. Isaiah of Jerusalem differed from Amos and Micah, who also lived in the Southern Kingdom. The bulk of their prophecies were against the traditionally errant, and far more prosperous Northern Kingdom - away from their home territory. By contrast, Isaiah opens by facing the situation on his own doorstep - the Holy City of Jerusalem (1:1). As Rosenberg S.G. (The Haftara Cycle: p.176) points out, staying firmly on home ground and confronting the evils on one's home patch is rather more difficult than seeing the faults in other places.

Like Moses (Deut. 32:1), Isaiah calls on the Creation (1:2) to witness G-d's message to the people of Jerusalem - which consists of four themes:

1. Scathing rebuke - where other prophets, such as Hosea, speak of Israel as an unfaithful wife, Isaiah talks of 'children' whom He raised, and who 'rebelled' against Him (1:2) - '(even) an ox knows his owner, and a donkey knows his master's feeding trough. But Israel does not know, My people do not perceive.' (1:3). Isaiah was particularly harsh towards the leadership of the Southern Kingdom - the 'chiefs of Sodom' (1:10) - under his own nose in Jerusalem. He brings the word of G-d telling them how He despises their hypocrisy in their elaborate religious ceremonies and displays of prayer one side, coupled with their rampart social injustice on the other. 'How the faithful city has become like a harlot!' exclaims Isaiah. 'Once it was full of justice, and righteousness lived within; but now - murderers! … Your princes are wayward and associates of thieves, they all love bribes and pursue gifts. They do not judge the orphan, and the widow's case does not reach them.' (1:21-23)

2. Dire warning of what was to come if the people did not repent - the Land of Judah would become desolate, burnt by fire, and devoured by foreigners (1:7) - which actually happened, as the Lachish relief (now in the British Museum) poignantly bears witness. Although Jerusalem did not actually fall, it was heavily beleaguered (701 BCE), barely surviving - and was very likely what Isaiah foresaw in his alluding to 'the daughter of Zion being left like a hut in the vineyard… as a besieged city.' (1:8)

3. Guidance - the only way to avoid future disaster is for the people to change their priorities and ways. Dignity and justice for the helpless, destitute, and less protected classes of society - represented by the orphan and the widow, came before Temple offerings and prayer: 'Learn to do good! Devote yourself to justice! Aid the wronged! Uphold the rights of the orphan! Defend the cause of the widow!' (1:17)

4. Words of comfort - Jerusalem would ultimately have to be cleansed by the enemy, as the people would not listen to his warnings: G-d would use suffering at the hands of other peoples to reform them, as they would not reform themselves. Then G-d would restore His qualities of social justice that He demands - especially in His Holy City: 'I will restore your judges as of old, and your advisers as you had long ago. Afterwards you will be called "City of Righteousness, Faithful City." Zion will be redeemed though justice, and those who repent there through righteousness.' (1:26-27)

D'var Torah

Isaiah, like Hosea, Amos, and Jeremiah rebuked their peoples for bringing Temple offerings, whilst they not only neglected G-d's Commandments, but also basic common decency. Indeed, Jeremiah witnessing the Destruction of Jerusalem more than a century later, declared that the 'sin of my people became greater than the sin of Sodom' (Lam. 4:6). Isaiah makes a similar comparison in the Haftara text: 'Here G-d's Word, you captains of Sodom! Listen to the teachings of our G-d, your people of Gomorroh!' (1:10)

What is the connection between the conduct of the people of Jerusalem and the people of Sodom? Why did the Prophet select specifically the society of Sodom? Surely there were many degenerate nations living at that time that would have made suitable comparison, without having to delve into ancient history?

In answering that question, the Torah testifies that Sodom was prosperous and successful - 'like the Garden of G-d, like the Land of Egypt' (Gen. 13:10) - Egypt and Mesopotamia being the most sophisticated civilizations of that age. Lot, who himself was wealthy (ibid. 13:5-6), fitted well into that society. He was good for business - he was good for the State. In short, Lot was welcome to Sodom, because he was a worthwhile investment. By contrast, the two 'uninvited guests' (19:1 ff.) who appeared to be a drain on the economy did not fit in…

That was the underlying mechanism of the society of Sodom - using people that can help you and turning one's back to all the rest. In short - 'We, Ourselves, and Us'.

Now look at the practices that Isaiah highlighted as being the things that G-d hates. 'I am fed up with your burnt offerings! [Your] incense is offensive to me! I hate your New Moons and Festivals - they are a burden to Me, and I cannot bear them! When you spread your hands [in prayer], I will turn my eyes away from you. As much as you pray, I will not listen…' (1:13-15)

One of my teachers, Rabbi M. Miller ztl, made the following point. There are two reasons why a person giving a shiur (Torah discourse) might move his hand. One is positive, and the other is negative. If that person does so as a gesture to emphasize a point he is making, and he is giving Torah instruction as an act of service to his Creator and his students, that movement is a worthy one. It is part of giving the shiur. If instead, his overriding purpose is to show off and ingratiate himself with the public, that hand movement is an unworthy one. It is part of an exercise in self-aggrandizement at the expense of the public, as well as a self-centered abuse of Torah. Thus the same words, accompanied by the same actions might be delivered to two similar audiences. One may be a service to G-d and the students, and the other an abuse of the Torah and the students, and a service to oneself only. The latter, using the words of the Haftara, G-d hates: it makes Him weary.

Similarly there are two types of reasons why a person may spend a long time in prayer. It could be a deep and genuine intercession between himself and the Creator - for the good of Humanity. He might be so deeply involved that he does forget the time… and he has to be tapped on the shoulder to finish, as the place is being locked up. But there could be another explanation - based on his own selfish interests. It might suit him in certain societies to get a reputation of being a 'tzaddik' (righteous person) - so he goes through all the motions and exaggerated physical accompaniments, so that the shammas (sexton) who eventually has to ease him out of the synagogue, spreads the word about his 'piety'. Likewise, Isaiah railed against the elaborate voluntary festivals offerings at the Temple could have been made to impress other people of one's wealth, and make those people with less to spend feel dowdy and unwanted.

That is the connection between Sodom, and the Jerusalem that Isaiah criticized. Both were helping themselves, not others. And the observation made by Jeremiah much later on about the same people: 'the sin of my people became greater than the sin of Sodom' (Lam. 4:6) now makes more sense. Not only did the people of Jerusalem act out of self-interest, as did the people of Sodom, but they went even further - they wrapped those acts up in G-d's Holy Torah. But He was not fooled…

That gives us a deeper understanding of the final words of the Haftara - 'Zion will be redeemed though justice, and those who repent there through tzedaka - righteousness.' (1:27) The fundamental sin of Zion was serving oneself - it will be redeemed when its people serve the true needs of all others - as many individuals and organizations in Jerusalem do today…

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Also by Jacob Solomon:
Between the Fish and the Soup

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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