The book of Vayikra (Leviticus) begins with the detailed laws of the sacrifices. In the haftarah, Isaiah chides the people of his day for neglecting the bringing of sacrifices. Isaiah lived in a time when the king, Ahaz, simply locked up the Temple, and built altars all over his kingdom to promote sacrifices to the various gods.1 It was not that G‑d had burdened them with huge expenses in the sacrificial duties; the fault, rather, lay squarely with the people. Although there was no real excuse for such conduct, G‑d would nevertheless be forgiving, just as He had been in the past.

In the style of Isaiah, the verses take a sharp turn at this point, to prophecies of goodness and reward in the days of Moshiach. G‑d will grant physical and spiritual plenty to His people. The people who were faithful to G‑d will hold their heads high, and those who identify in other ways will now align themselves with their Jewish identity. Even non-Jews will include themselves at this time in the Jewish faith and principles.

The prophet continues in mocking the culture of idolatry that was prevalent at the time: “Who would fashion a god or a molten statue that has no purpose?” He goes on to describe the devotion and hard work that would go into the creation of these idols, just for them to stand motionless and helpless in the homes of their worshippers. The same wood used to shape these statues was used for day-to-day cooking and warmth; how could you roast meat by the fire of half the log, and then prostrate yourself to the other half?

The time will come when all those who put their faith in this nonsense will be ashamed of themselves. The Jews, on the other hand, are encouraged to remember how they are predestined and fashioned to be the people of G‑d. Let them not forget Him. In the end, at the time of the redemption, G‑d will wipe away the sins of His people, and joy will ring out from the entire creation.

This people of Mine

The opening words of the haftarah read: “I have fashioned this people for Myself, that they might declare My praise.”

The connotation in this verse is that there are two statements being made. The first is regarding the nature of the Jewish people. The sources abound with the fact that not only does each member of the Jewish people possess a G‑dly soul, but that even their characteristic predispositions are those suitable for “a nation of G‑d.” An example for this is a Talmudic passage: “There are three distinguishing marks of this nation, the Jewish people: They are merciful, they are bashful, and they perform acts of kindness.”2 This is why the verse uses the term “fashioned,” for it is not only the essence of a Jew that is especially connected to G‑d, but also the external and revealed characteristics of a Jew that bespeak that inner essence.

In this vein, the second part of the verse (“that they might declare My praise”) can be understood in an entirely new light. The declaration of G‑d’s praise, which the verse describes as the function of the Jew, is said by way of continuation of the assertion that G‑d “fashioned these people for Himself.” This lends itself to mean that the praise of G‑d emerges just from the very existence of the people whom He fashioned to be His.

One primary expression of this is the eternity of the Jewish people. The Jews are, as they always have been, a small people, “the fewest among all nations.”3 Furthermore, the reality for the Jew has always been to be “as a sheep among seventy wolves.”4 The volume of persecution and cruelty suffered by our people defies all comprehension. And yet we are here, while all the great ancient nations have been consigned to history. This truth manifests itself manyfold in modern times, with the generations of Jews living after the Holocaust. Indeed, any Jew living today is a living miracle, who just by living and walking this earth is a testimony to “the praise of G‑d.” The mere fact of being Jewish most certainly and visibly also “pushes” the Jew to live his daily life in accordance with his true self.

An important point to emphasize is that the above virtues are inherent to every Jew, and stand independent of any deed he may or may not do. Fabricated within the very persona of a Jew is the ultimate will to follow the will of G‑d. This illustrated in a famous Talmudic dictum concerning the laws of divorce. By Torah law, a bill of divorce is valid only if the husband writes and gives it willingly. This gives rise to a difficulty, for the Talmud rules that if the law requires a husband to give a divorce, he can be coerced by the court until he gives his consent. How could this be, if the Torah allows for a divorce to given only willingly? The answer is that the fundamental desire of every Jew is to affirm his Jewishness and observe the Torah and its mitzvot. Even when a person's conscious mind does not necessarily consent to this inner motivation, it is still at work, molding his character without his knowledge. When the person, albeit after coercion, states that he wants to follow the Torah ruling, he is actually saying that which he deep down desires to do anyway.5

A similar concept is true with regard to the second idea: the very existence of a Jew, regardless of his conduct, is something that reflects the wonders of G‑d.

The outcome of these truths must reflect on the encounters we have with our fellow Jews. Regardless of what their conduct might be, we must view them for who they are: a part of the people chosen by G‑d, whose very being brings out G‑d’s workings in this world. As mentioned above, this is an idea to be magnified over and again in our generation. Such an attitude will lead, by extension, to encouraging every Jew whom we encounter to express, in the daily observance of Torah and mitzvot, this awesome identity and connection which they already possess.6

“I will have wiped away your willful sins… return to Me”

The order in this verse seems somewhat strange. The only way that G‑d wipes away sins is if the person returns to G‑d in teshuvah (commonly translated as “repentance”). Seemingly, the verse should have begun with the encouragement to “return to Me,” before saying that G‑d has forgiven the sin?

In his work Iggeret Hateshuvah,7 Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains this in the following way:

Teshuvah consists of two parts. The first is to undo the damage caused by the sin. When a person sins, he or she becomes a carrier and a conductor for evil. This unholiness brought into oneself has a lingering and cumulative effect in distancing and desensitizing a person from G‑dliness. The first stage in the reversal of this is to realize how sorry one’s current state of affairs really is. When the spirit of the sinner is broken, it allows the G‑dly soul in the person to surface. When this level of teshuvah is achieved, G‑d is quick to forgive. But this forgiveness is a prerequisite to the second stage of teshuvah, the actual return to G‑d. Now that the spiritual blockage has been dissolved, the soul can soar upwards and reconnect with her Maker through Torah study, prayer and Mitzvot.

The first stage of teshuvah (called teshuvah tataah, “lower-level teshuvah”) will involve frustration and bitterness. The second stage (teshuva ila’ah, “higher-level teshuvah”) is performed with immense joy: the joy of coming home after being distant.