Isaiah breaks into the official liturgy of Yom Kippur

Isaiah breaks into the official liturgy of Yom Kippur


 The Prophetic Reading for the Fast of Yom Kippur, Isaiah 57:14-58:14
Translation by Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow, director,

The Shalom Center <>


Blessing before the Haftarah:

Blessed are You, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh,

The Interwoven Breath of Life,

Who in every generation

Breathes prophetic truth

Through the throats of human beings --

As we blow outcry

Through the Great Ram’s Horn. (Ameyn)

And God said:
Open up, open up, Clear a path!
Clear away all obstacles
From the path of My People!
For so says the One
Who high aloft forever dwells,
Whose Name is Holy:

I dwell on high, in holiness,
And therefore with the lowly and humiliated,
To breathe new breath into the humble,
To give new heart to the broken-hearted.

For your sin of greed
Through My Hurricane of Breath YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh
I smashed you.
Worse: I hid My face, withheld My Breath.

Yet I will not do battle against you forever,
I will not be angry with you forever.
From Me comes the breath that floats out to make all worlds.
I breathe the breath of life, I am the Breath of Life.

When you wander off the path as your own heart,
wayward, takes you.
I see the path you need —— and I will heal you.
I will guide and comfort you
With words of courage and of consolation
For those who mourn among you.
Peace, peace … shalom, shalom!… to those who are far and near,
Says the Breath-of-Life —-
And I will heal you.

But the wicked are like a troubled sea
Which cannot rest,
Whose waters toss up mire and mud.
There is no peace, said my God,
For the wicked.

Cry out aloud, don’t hold back,
Lift up your voice like the shofar!
Tell My people what they are doing wrong,
Tell those who call themselves the “House of Jacob” their misdeeds.
For day after day they go out searching for Me,
They take some kind of pleasure in getting to know My ways —-
As if they were a people that actually did righteous deeds
And never ignored the just rulings of their God.

They keep asking Me for the rules of justice
As if they would take delight in being close to God.

They say: “Why is it that we have fasted, and You don’t see our suffering?
We press down our egos —- but You don’t pay attention!”

Look! On the very day you fast, you keep scrabbling for wealth;
On the very day you fast, you keep oppressing all your workers.

Look! You fast in strife and contention.
You strike with a wicked fist.

You are not fasting today in such a way
As to make your voices heard on high.
Is that the kind of fast that I desire?
Is that really a day for people to “press down their egos”?

Am I commanding you to droop your heads like bulrushes
And lie around in sackcloth and ashes?

Is that what you call a fast day,
The kind of day that the God of the Burning Bush would wish?


This is the kind of fast that I desire:

Unlock the hand-cuffs put on by wicked power!

Untie the ropes of the yoke!

Let the oppressed go free,

And break off every yoke!

Share your bread with the hungry.

Bring the poor, the outcasts, to your home.

When you see them naked, clothe them;

They are your flesh and blood;

Don’t hide yourself from them!


Then your light will burst through like the dawn;

Then when you need healing it will spring up quickly;

Then your own righteousness will march ahead to guard you.

And a radiance from YHWH will reach out behind to guard you.


Then, when you cry out, YHWH/ the Breath of Life will answer;

Then, when you call, God will say: “Here I am!”

If you banish the yoke from your midst,

If you rid yourself of scornful finger-pointing

And words of contempt;

If you open up your life-experience to the hungry

And soothe the life that has been trampled under foot,

Then even in darkness your light will shine out

And your moments of gloom turn bright as noonday.

Then the InterBreath of Life will always be your guide,

Will soothe your own life in your own times of dryness

And strengthen your bones when they are weary.


 Then you shall be like a garden given water,

Like a wellspring whose waters never fail.

Those who spring from you shall rebuild the ancient ruins

And you shall lay foundations for the coming generation.

You shall be called “Those who mend torn places,”

You shall be called “Those who build lanes to live in.”


If you refrain from trampling My Sabbatical time

And from being busy-busy on My restful day and year;

If you will not only call the time of Pause delightful

But also turn far from your usual way

And set aside your driven-work and chatter

To be yourselves the rays by which God’s Holiness

Can turn this world into a radiant joy —-


Then indeed you will find delight in YHWH.

For then —- when you have joined the lowly —-

I will set you all with Me, in the Majesty of Nurture

Astride the heights of Earth.


Then —- when you feed others —- I will let you eat your fill.

From what is truly due you as the heirs of Jacob.

For this word comes from the Mouth that
Breathes all life.


How shall we read the Great Haftarah — the passage from Isaiah that the rabbis taught us to read on the morning of Yom Kippur ?

Since the earliest days of Fabrangen, in the early 1970s, I have made it my business to do the reading of this Haftarah in whatever congregation I am part of, each Yom Kippur.

I read it in English, since it seems to me the whole point of the passage is to break through ritual patterns to address the urgent needs of the poor. I try to read it like an outraged activist who has just heard that some president signed an "Act for the More Efficient Starvation of Children."

In some years I have done more than read it. More on that below.

There are several things about the Haftarah that seem important to me:

1. The whole rhythm of Isaiah's speech is to move from ecstatic "religiosity" to concrete acts of loving-kindness, and then through this connection with the humble and humiliated to reestablish connection with the Infinite.

In other words it moves from a fake high to a deep grounding to a real high — real because everyone, including the lowly, is part of it.

2. I connect this speech with (Deutero)Isaiah's explanation of his mission in Chapter 61, which in verse1 talks of "likro lishvuim dror, to call out to prisoners release." Isaiah Chapter 61 explicitly talks of "calling for the Year of YAHH's favor/pleasure/will" and talks of "dror [release]," a word powerfully used in the Leviticus passage about the Jubilee and used by Jeremiah when he calls for the people explicitly to release their slaves, as required in the Year of Jubilee.

Chapter 58 of Isaiah, which is part of the Yom Kippur reading, bears several strong hints at calling for the Jubilee (e.g. the Yovel was supposed to be announced on Yom Kippur with the blowing of a shofar; I read "Lift up your voice like a shofar" as the Prophet's feeling himself called to substitute his voice for the Shofar that was not being sounded to call for a Yovel).

The other specifics in 58, like those in 61, fit the notion of the Jubilee. What's more, the shift to Shabbat at the end of the passage would make special sense if the Prophet had in mind the super-Shabbat of the Jubilee. If he did, then part of it would be the release of indentured servants.

3. I think the speech was actually given as an interruption of a Yom Kippur service, or at minimum is deliberately written as if it were. I fantasize Isaiah elbowing his way thru the crowd at the Temple or through the crowd at a Super-Synagogue in Babylonia — and interrupting — shouting out this radical challenge to the liturgy.

4. Unfortunately, the result of the Rabbis' assigning this to be read on YK is that it becomes not a challenge to the liturgy but a part of it. There is a wonderful story by Franz Kafka:
"One day a leopard stalked into the synagogue, roaring and
lashing his tail. Three weeks later, he had become part of the
liturgy. "

Many synagogues read the haftarah in Hebew or English as another droning piece of the machzor.

I have therefore tried hard to break thru this drone. For several years, I worked with someone in my congregation to interrupt my reading of the Haftarah by shouting out short lines — headlines fom the newspaper — that exemplify poverty, homelessness, etc.:

"72-Year-old Man Freezes to Death on Philadelphia Street."

"Post Office Announces 30 Jobs, 300 Line Up to Apply"

I read a line of Isaiah about the poor — and the "plant" interrupts. I pause, read another line — and he interrupts again. We make sure people get the content of the interruption.

At first the congregation is scandalized — "He's INTERRUPTING THE SERVICE !!!" They even shake their fists, just as the haftarah says. Then they get it, and they listen with a deeper part of themselves.

Ideally, there should then be time to discuss.

This understanding of the Yom Kippur speech comes from the way I try to read these (and other) texts, which is to put myself in the place of someone saying these things and to ask myself —

What was going on for the author, the editor, of these words? What spiritual struggle, what "political" despair, had arisen for him? (Mostly it was a "him," if the text is more than a century old. Few women had their responses to their own spiritual struggles and oppressions recorded in "the tradition." )

Then I ask myself, "What images, symbols, passages of Torah arise in my head and heart as I overhear the struggle that led to these words upon this paper?" What social / spiritual struggle is really eating at my kishkes?

I try to unleash the leopard in the liturgy and the leopard that is stalking in me, in the synagogue, and in the world. I try to hear the Divine roar of passion and compassion, and give it voice.


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