Parshat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat preceding the 9th of Av. The Haftarah reading on this Shabbat is the third of the three Haftarot of affliction. The Prophet Isaiah laments the heartless ritual service performed by the people, service devoid of inner desire to worship the Lord, service empty of human feeling. “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? …I am satiated with elevation offerings of rams and the choicest of fattened animals… You shall not continue to bring a worthless meal offering – incense of abominations is it unto Me… (Isaiah 1:11-13)
What does Isaiah want from us? Is fulfilling the Mitzvot a small thing? Maintaining a lifestyle both arduous and restrictive – does that amount to nothing in the eyes of G-d? Indeed, Isaiah was addressing observant Jews, not the secular. And it wasn’t enough that they were already bending over backwards to fulfill every letter of the Torah and then some! The whole rhythm of the year – feast, fast, feast, fast… Build a Sukkah, scour the house and all your property for a crumb of chametz. Go to shul every morning and spend 45 minutes wrapped in a talit and tefillin in prayer. Everyone in the world struggles to fit the crockery they need into limited kitchen space and cabinetry. For us, double the crockery, two sets of dishes and silverware – a third set if you want the Shabbat edition – and it all must fit into a standard kitchen space. We check our garments for a mixture of wool and linen in the lining, our mouths water for six hours before we can have the double chocolate fudge ice cream (yes, the one with that is chalav yisrael) just because we didn’t realize at the time that the soup had chicken stock in it.
Our efforts, are they worthless? Our incense, the conversations we are greedy to hear but break off before it develops into lashon hara, G-d does not desire? Our sacrifices, pulling ourselves out of bed, bone weary, because we forgot to daven Maariv, are these really spurned by G-d?
Isaiah’s words are harsh and jarring. Our instinct is to revolt but instead, being good Jews, we stop and look inward, we introspect.
Arduous? Burdensome? Bending over backwards! These terms are themselves the problem. If fulfillment of the Torah feels restrictive and a pain we have a perception issue. Indeed, the sacrifices we make are no less precious than the ultimate sacrifice Abraham was prepared to make. Our efforts are as dear to the Almighty as the pleasing aroma of incense burnt in the holy of holies on Yom Kippur. But if these efforts are patronizing, if we only do this because we feel we have to, we go through the motions without putting any heart and zeal into our observance, then we shouldn’t have much trouble understanding where Isaiah is coming from. Nobody wants a begrudging favor. No spouse wants to hear ‘I love you,’ knowing that it is mere lip service. No wife wants the wilted flowers we drop on the table as we rush out of the house on the pretense of being late to work so we don’t have to actually talk to her. She doesn’t need the flowers. Flowers are a gesture, a token of our feelings and if the feelings aren’t there the flowers are an insulting apology we would be better off not bringing.
G-d craves our desire to serve Him. The Mitzvot of the Torah are powerful vehicles to foster a bonding relationship between man and G-d. The Mitzvot are the flowers, the gesture, the expression of our closeness and the engine to bring us even closer. It is a great privilege to have this relationship, an honor to serve. If it feels arduous, there is a real relationship problem. If we perform Mitzvot with a grudge it is no wonder that the prophet rants about it being insulting.
No man ever tired of carrying a fortune of gold on his back. Such a load is never a burden. May the Lord give us the perspective to appreciate the great life of opportunity we have and see in every Mitzvah we perform a priceless treasure.