Isaiah Lives! -- The Challenge of Yom Kippur

At the heart of Yom Kippur is, of all things, a critique of “Yom Kippur”   -– if it is a ritual without compassion or commitment to radical change.

Long ago the Prophet Isaiah walked into the crowd celebrating the holy day by fasting and chanting psalms. 

Is this the fast that the God Who freed the slaves is demanding?” he asked.

And --  to use the words that would speak an Isaiah living today --


You must break off the handcuffs and free from prison those poor and outcast whom you have made the victims of police brutality,  mass incarceration, and a criminal injustice system!

“You must welcome in your midst the despairing refugees from ‘foreign’ lands whom you have deported, whose families you have broken.

“You have let the rich scorch your planet till great storms have destroyed many homes, great droughts have parched many crops.

“You must make sure the hungry are fed, the homeless find homes, the jobless find well-paying, worthy work -- – not just for a day but a lifetime!”

And for hundreds of years, we have read these challenges at the heart of our day of deepest transformation.

How do we keep these words themselves from becoming mere “liturgy,” became exactly what Isaiah was challenging?

Let me share with you three examples:

(1)  P’nai Or of Philadelphia will carry Isaiah into the streets. They have made placards, each with a line in English and Hebrew from Isaiah, and will march from their prayer service into public space, carrying Isaiah, speaking the truth and the challenge of today. To all who gather for prayer they will explain:


TODAY we will hear the words of Isaiah

after the Torah service

“Let the oppressed

go free.

Break off every yoke!

Share your bread

with the hungry

Do not hide yourself

from them!”







Several members will speak out about actions we can take this year to promote social justice in the Delaware Valley. All those who march can participate as witnesses and by handing out information to shoppers.

This year, we will also share a collaboration with the Highpoint Café which will be collecting donations for food for the poor and homeless of our city.

Those who remain at shul will send us off with blessings and continue with the Yizkor ritual where small groups share events in their lives that were joyous and those that brought grief. We on the march will gather to observe Yizkor outside for our beloveds and for those who have died this year in the name of social justice and due to hurricanes and earthquakes. We will return to join in El Maley Rachamim, the memorial prayer for the dead,  with the whole community.


(2) A way to prepare your own heart, mind, and spirit for Yom Kippur: We encourage you to watch a remarkable on-line video recitation in words,  music ,and graphics of the Isaiah Prophetic reading, at


(If the link appears broken on your screen and clicking to it does not work, please copy the whole link between the <> signs and paste it into your browser. )

(3)  Using the translation below, B*R*E*A*K  into the text with brief messages from today. For examples, see below – but feel free to choose your own.

Isaiah breaks into the official liturgy of Yom Kippur

The Prophetic Reading for the Fast of Yom Kippur, Isaiah 57:14-58:14
[Slightly midrashic translation by Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow]

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 house.
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 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 Breath 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 Renewal-time*
And from being busy-busy on My holy day;
If you will not only call Renewal-time* delightful
But also turn far from your usual way
And set aside your business and your 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,
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.

 [The "Burning Bush" and "Torah of the Earth" graphins are by Michael Bogdanow. For more of his work, and to

bring prints into your own home, click to <>]

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