In the first chapter of Sefer Yeshayahu, the prophet excoriates the people for their wrongdoing, and then urges, “Wash yourselves; cleanse yourselves; remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes; cease wrongdoing; learn well; seek justice; aid the oppressed; judge on behalf of the orphan; wage the fight of the widow; go now…” (Yeshayahu 1:16-18).
Rashi (1:16) comments that the prophet here presents ten different admonitions, corresponding to the Aseret Yemei Teshuva – the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. Somehow, Yeshayahu’s prophecy in this chapter is associated with the process that we are to undertake during this special period of introspection and repentance.
One explanation for this connection, perhaps, may relate to the context in which this prophecy was delivered to the people. Yeshayahu describes the woeful state of the Judean Kingdom at the time, lamenting, “Your land is desolate, your cities are burned by fire, your ground – foreigners consume it in front of your eyes” (1:7). The country has been overrun by enemies and destroyed to the point where “the Daughter of Zion [Jerusalem] is left as a hut in a vineyard” – a lone, small, feeble structure in an otherwise deserted landscape. The Radak (1:8) explains that this refers to the period of King Chizkiyahu, when the kingdom was nearly annihilated by the Assyrian Empire. As we read in Sefer Melakhim II (chapter 18-19), the Assyrian army, led by King Sancheiriv, conquered all the cities in Judea, and then besieged Jerusalem. The Assyrians would have completed their conquest of Judea if not for a miraculous plague which God brought upon the soldiers as they slept outside Jerusalem’s walls. And thus when Yeshayahu bemoans the sorry state of the kingdom, which was largely desolate, except for its capital city, this refers to the time of King Chizkiyahu.
This historical perspective sheds an entirely new light on Yeshayahu’s prophecy. King Chizkiyahu had led a successful campaign of spiritual renewal in the kingdom, after his father, King Achaz, had abandoned the service of God, closing the Beit Ha-mikdash and institutionalizing idolatry (Melakhim II 16, 18). Chizkiyahu restored the service in the Beit Ha-mikdash, and the Gemara (Sanhedrin 94b) speaks of how Chizkiyahu revitalized Torah study in the kingdom, to the point where every man, woman and child was proficient in the most complex, intricate areas of Halakha. Yet, at least according to the Radak, it was specifically during this period of religious renewal that Yeshayahu harshly condemns the people, calling them “a sinful nation, a people heavy in sin, evil offspring, corrupt children” who have “abandoned the Lord, angered the Sacred One of Israel” (1:4). And he laments, “How did the faithful city [Jerusalem] become a harlot?!” (1:21). The reason, as Yeshayahu makes clear in this prophecy, is that the people renewed their devotion to religious ritual, but acted unethically. He speaks of the people offering large numbers of robust sacrifices (1:11-13) and praying (1:15), but charges that they committed murder (1:21) and traded with counterfeit money and flawed merchandise (1:22). Yeshayahu describes the leaders as corrupt thieves, who filled their pockets rather than assist the downtrodden (1:23). It seems that the excitement of the spiritual reawakening led the people to over focus on ritual, neglecting their more basic, elementary ethical responsibilities. Their enthusiasm for sacrifices and prayer resulted in a disregard for morals and kindness. They saw themselves as righteous and devoted – particularly in comparison with the previous generation – but in truth, they were evil, greedy and corrupt.
With this background, we might perhaps revisit Rashi’s comment viewing Yeshayahu’s plea for repentance in this prophecy as a model for our repentance during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva. Introspection requires us to unearth the flaws in our characters and conduct which we do normally see, to leave the comfort of complacency and feel – to some extent – uneasy and uncomfortable with ourselves. We normally live with a sense of self-confidence and self-assurance, proud of our good deeds and good habits. This feeling is warranted and even important for us to experience joy, fulfillment and self-esteem. During this time of year, however, we are expected to call to ourselves the way Yeshayahu called to the people during the time of Chizkiyahu, to ask ourselves whether perhaps we feel overly confident, overly secure and overly proud. We are to rattle our sense of self-assurance the way Yeshayahu rattled the people of his time, identifying flaws of which we might have been unaware, or which we might have denied, and do what we can to try to correct them.