The haftara read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av is the opening chapter of Sefer Yeshayahu, in which the prophet excoriates the people of his time for their severe moral failings. As he introduces his harsh condemnation, Yeshayahu – in the name of God – laments, “An ox knows its possessor, and a donkey, its owner’s trough; but Israel does not know, My nation has not understood” (1:3). Yeshayahu bemoans the fact that whereas animals are instinctively loyal to their owners who feed them and care for them, Benei Yisrael have been disloyal to God.
This analogy, at first glance, seems unfair to Benei Yisrael. Beasts such as oxen and donkeys are naturally capable of domestication, and fulfill their owners’ wishes by sheer instinct. Can the same be said about fealty to God’s laws? Can God really expect the same kind of devotion on the part of Benei Yisrael as animals show to their owners by force of their natural, ingrained instincts?
One answer, perhaps, emerges from the content of the prophecy that this verse introduces. In this prophecy, Yeshayahu condemns Benei Yisrael for being passionate about sacrificial offerings in the Beit Ha-mikdash, but entirely indifferent to basic, elementary morals. He accuses them of bloodshed (1:15,21)), of ignoring the plight of orphans and widows (1:17), and of using counterfeit money and selling defective merchandise (1:22), and he describes their leaders as thieves (1:23). The picture he depicts is one of utterly distorted values and priorities, of people excitedly offering expensive sacrifices to God, thus feeling spiritually fulfilled and pious, while then lying and cheating to one another and disregarding the cries of the underprivileged. The people of this era, it seems, felt they could be holy without being ethical, that they could earn God’s favor through their sacred endeavors while violating the most basic, elementary standards of ethics and morality.
As this is the message clearly being communicated by this prophecy, we can perhaps suggest a new explanation for the analogy to domesticated animals’ instinctive loyalty to their owners. Yeshayahu is precisely condemning the people for ignoring basic, intuitive rules of ethics while pursuing lofty spiritual achievements. He teaches that honesty and decency are ingrained within the human being’s natural, intuitive sense of morality, that treating people with dignity and caring for the needy are as instinctive to human beings as eating from the owner’s trough is to a donkey. Yeshayahu’s point is precisely that Am Yisrael were acting in opposition to the human ethical instinct, that their spiritual aspirations perversely led them to violate their intuitive moral sensibilities, rather than enhance and refine them.
Amidst his scathing censure of the people’s corruption, Yeshayahu compares them to the cities of Sedom and Amora (1:10). These cities, of course, were destroyed centuries earlier, in the time of Avraham, because of their iniquity. The prophet Yechezkel (16:49) states explicitly that these cities’ sin was disregarding the plight of the needy. Midrashic sources describe at length Sedom’s ideological objection to hospitality and charity, and the Torah itself tells of the townspeople’s furious reaction when one resident – Lot – dared welcome two guests (Bereishit 19). Charity is not included in the Seven Noachide Laws, and no explicit directive from God was ever given demanding that people welcome weary travelers or feed hungry paupers. This universal requirement stems from our intuitive human sense of decency and compassion, and thus Sedom and Amora were destroyed despite their never having received an explicit command to help the needy. Yeshayahu invokes this precedent in his condemnation of Benei Yisrael’s distorted sense of piety, emphasizing that there can be no piety without first adhering to elementary, intuitive standards of decency.
This chapter was chosen as the prophecy to be read and studied before Tisha B’Av, perhaps to instruct that as we look to improve ourselves so we become worthy of redemption, we must first address the basics. Before we try elevating ourselves to exalted levels of holiness, we need to first establish a firm foundation of elementary morals and ethics. Of course, the process of repentance and growth must not end there, but this is where it absolutely must begin. Only once we adhere to the basic principles of integrity and sensitivity are we then prepared to advance and set for ourselves lofty spiritual goals.