Isaiah and Jewish Oppression

This past Saturday, our rabbi asked the congregation what message they were taking with them into Yom Kippur this year.  An elderly lady said, “the memory of our oppression.”

The rabbi was surprised: “Is the memory of oppression something we’re trying to hold onto, or to let go of?”

“To hold onto.”

Naturally, this got me thinking about the role oppression plays in the Jewish psyche.  We are commanded often, by sources both religious and secular, to remember our oppression.  “Never forget.”  But why not?  So that it won’t happen again…to whom?  To us?  Have we come then to blaming the evils of the world on forgetfulness, and specifically the forgetfulness of the victims?  Surely not.

To me, dwelling on past and current oppression is itself oppressive, an affliction of the soul.  It makes sense to do it on the Day of Atonement, when we are commanded to afflict our souls and deprive ourselves of comfort.  But that’s what brings us to Isaiah.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, after the Torah portion, we will listen to Isaiah mocking us for how bad we are at repentance. “Why have we fasted, and you have not seen it?” Isaiah paraphrases the people (us) in his best whiny-voice. “We afflicted our souls, and you took no notice!”  He answers,

Because on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.   Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

(The latter half of this translation is from the New International Version, and it’s Isaiah 58:3-7, for those who like to follow along.)

Isaiah has a message for us: we’re doing it wrong.  Fasting and otherwise afflicting ourselves is meaningless if we do not change our ways. Change our ways how?  Take it away, Isaiah:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

“Okay, Noah,” you say, that’s a pretty great message, but what does it have to do with the oppression of the Jews?  I say this: there are two ways our culture can use the memory (and the continued existence) of Jewish oppression.  We can see it as a get-out-of-jail-free card, using it to justify our actions and blind us to the suffering of our friends and enemies alike.  Or, we can make explicit that never forget means never let it happen to anyone else ever.  We can loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, and set the oppressed free.  We can march with Black Lives Matter, we can stand with Ahmed, we can support the Syrian refugees and the Honduran and Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees.  We can support the Palestinians too and not just Israel.

Then shall our light break forth like the dawn, and our wounds be healed.


N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.