Several weeks ago, on the Shabbat morning immediately before Tisha b'Av, I sat down at the table in our social hall to study Torah with those who had joined us for services. We studied the haftarah reading assigned to that particular Shabbat, which comes from the prophet Isaiah, just like our assigned reading for today.
Here is a taste of the haftarah we read together that morning:
Why do you make sacrifices to Me? says your God.
I am overfull with burnt offerings; I take no delight in bloodshed.
Bring no more vain offerings. They are hateful to Me.
New moon and Shabbat when you gather --
I can't bear the iniquity of this community.
I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.
They are a burden to Me. They weary Me.
When you spread out your hands in longing, I will hide My eyes.
When you call out in prayer, I will not hear.
Your hands are bloody with wrongdoing.
Wash yourself, make yourself clean: put away your evil acts before My eyes.
Turn from evil and do good.
Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, tend to the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now and let us reason together, says God.
Though your sins be scarlet, they will become white as snow.
Though they are red as blood, they will become white as clean wool.
"I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals." I tremble every time I read that passage. Because I love our new moons and our appointed festivals! I love how our tradition teaches us to mark time, to pursue spiritual transformation and teshuvah. Of course, today we offer prayers, not animals. But what I hear Isaiah saying is: because our hands are bloody with wrongdoing, God is sickened by our worship. As one of the people sitting around the Torah study table put it, on that Shabbat morning before Tisha b'Av: if we aren't also pursuing justice, our rituals are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, because they delude us into thinking that spiritual life is "enough" even if our world is unjust.
I love our rituals. I have made it my life's work to try to connect people, through those rituals and texts and practices, with God. But I hear Isaiah's words, and I know that he is right.
There's a visible tension here between priest and prophet. In antiquity it was the job of the priests to keep Temple sacrifices going, to make atonement for the people through appropriate slaughter and prayer, to maintain and lubricate the flow of blessing into the world through their service in the Temple. And it was the job of the prophets to speak truth to power. To say, what y'all are doing isn't enough; God demands more of us. God demands justice and right behavior. If you don't act justly, then it doesn't matter one bit whether you're doing the sacrifices the way you were taught. The sacrificial system isn't enough.
In our Jewish lives today there exist neither priests nor prophets. The priestly system came to its end when the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. The end of prophecy is slightly harder to pin down, though the mainstream Jewish answer is that the era of prophecy came to an end even earlier.
We have neither priests nor prophets in today's world. But I don't think that means that the work they used to do is no longer necessary. On the contrary: I think it's our job, all of us, to be both priest and prophet for ourselves and for those around us. It's incumbent on all of us to sustain the rituals which keep our community life flowing smoothly -- and also to hear God's call for justice.
Three days before Tisha b'Av I sat with a group of y'all here and we talked about Isaiah's furious words. Two days before Tisha b'Av, we learned that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin.