The haftarah for the morning of Yom Kippur begins with a number of themes:

  • The prophet proclaims that we must “clear the way” and “remove the obstacles” from the “path.” Rashi takes this as a call to sideline and offset the evil inclination and the evil thoughts within us that are the obstacles to walking the righteous path of life.
  • G‑d is exalted and beyond any scope, but He chooses to be found with the downtrodden and lowly of spirit.
  • Harsh times may befall a person. G‑d will seem to be hidden and uninvolved. But this will not continue for eternity. After all, the soul and spirit emanate from Him, and in the end salvation will come. This difficult times come due to sin, but with teshuvah G‑d will recompense and give total comfort.
  • Doing teshuvah gives the person an entirely new identity. Instead of being the subject of insults, he will become a bastion of inner and outer peace. Conversely, the wicked are compared to the raging sea. Even a small wind causes waves and instability in the water; similarly, the life of the wicked is never peaceful—not from their fellow men, and definitely not from on high.

After underscoring the ideas above, Isaiah tells of the instruction he received from G‑d to rebuke the people. He was to relentlessly and forcefully to carry out this mission. The admonishment was directed at the rampant problem of spiritual double standards. On the one hand, there seemed to be an interest in the right thing to do. The various rituals of penitence were also adhered to. But all this penetrated only superficially. People remained selfish, deceitful and oppressive.

Fasting was—and remains—a primary means of penitence. Arrogance and indulgence are precipitators of sin, and fasting throws a wrench into such self-confidence. The fast, however, must be viewed as a means. Mere abstinence without an objective is not at all what this is about. The people were observing fasts, and left out none of the trappings: sackcloth, ashes, and a poor and bowed head. But the prophet booms, “do you call this a fast and an acceptable day to the L‑rd?”

What was doing with the poor? Were the hungry being fed? Were the naked being clothed? Was justice being meted out? Were people helping family members, or ignoring them? Were Jewish slaves being released, as the Torah demands, or were they being kept in slavery? Why was there quarreling, finger-pointing and hate speech?

This is what a fast needed to be about. Gaining the correct perspective and acting upon it would bring endless good and blessing to all those who did—in both this world and the next. G‑d would answer the prayers of the people. Even if all around them things would be dark, for them it would be as bright as midday. History would record positively those who restored a broken society and built the ruins of the world.

Finally, the prophet speaks about Shabbat observance. The verse carries many of the foundational ideas from which the sages extrapolate the laws regarding the spirit of Shabbat. The delight in Shabbat meals, the honor given to it with special Shabbat finery, refraining from un-Shabbat-like conversation and actions—all these and more are contained in this verse. It seems that that the prophet is continuing his theme: it is not enough that Shabbat be kept; there is a spirit and atmosphere about it that is crucial to the whole idea.

The haftarah finishes with a description of the incredible spiritual elevation that a Jew is given as a result of proper Shabbat observance (see below).

All About Rest

The last verse of the haftarah speaks of the reward for proper Shabbat observance. The final reward listed in the last verse reads: “…and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.” Why does the verse particularly speak of the “heritage of Jacob”? Did G‑d not bestow His blessing on all of our forefathers? In explanation, the Talmud1 explains that G‑d gave Jacob an unbounded measure of blessing, something not mentioned to the other forefathers:

R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Yose: He who delights in the Shabbat is given an unbounded heritage, as it is written, “…and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.” Not like Abraham, of whom it is written, “Arise, walk through the land [of Israel] in the length of it… [for I will give it to you]”;2 nor like Isaac, of whom it is written, “For to you and to your seed I will give all these lands”;3 but like Jacob, of whom it is written, “You shall spread abroad to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south.”4

It is known that the reward for a mitzvah is commensurate with the mitzvah itself.5 Following this principle, we would need to say that the mitzvah of Shabbat contains something boundless and infinite, for which reason the reward for it is an “unbounded heritage.”

Chassidic teachings explain this in the following way:

The fulfilment of other mitzvot is through action—positively doing something. Now, the quality of any deed is entirely dependent on the doer. For example: The objective of the mitzvah of tefillin is to direct the intellect and emotions to G‑d. To this end, the tefillin are donned on the head and opposite the heart. Now, when a great tzaddik puts on tefillin, the caliber of the head and heart which are putting on the tefillin and taking in their effect is much higher than when a simple and unlearned person does so.

In contrast, the mitzvah of Shabbat consists of “rest”—not doing things. When it comes to “lack,” or not-doing, there is no difference between one person and another. They may be resting and not-doing very different things, but the actual rest and cessation of work is the same.

Chassidus further explains that the nature of Shabbat is this way because the mitzvah of Shabbat in connected with the very essence of the Jewish soul. When it comes to the essence of being Jewish, no Jew is “more-Jew” than another Jew. The essence of the soul is equal. Shabbat is a mitzvah that penetrates to the very essence of a Jew, and for this reason there are no differences between one Jew and the other with regard to this mitzvah.

This idea is reflected in the text of the Amidah prayer for Shabbat afternoon: “From You is their rest, and by their rest they sanctify Your Name.”

The “rest” of Shabbat is something that is linked to “You,” G‑d Himself, and therefore it touches the essence of every Jew. That is represented by the phrase “and by their rest they sanctify Your Name”: Kiddush Hashem, “the sanctification of G‑d’s Name,” is the term used in Jewish literature and Jewish vernacular for the act of martyrdom— the expression of the essence of the soul that cannot, and will not, be severed from G‑d. “Resting” on Shabbat, then, gives expression to the very same element that is expressed by Kiddush Hashem.

Based on this, we can understand the intention of the Talmud that associates the blessing given to Jacob with the mitzvah of Shabbat. In its ultimate sense, the ability to “spread forth” in a limitless and boundless fashion lies solely within the province of G‑d Himself, who possesses no limitations or boundaries. The observance of Shabbat links the Jew to the essence of his soul, an essence that is one with G‑d Himself.6

[It is worth noting that this idea is strongly connected to Yom Kippur. The fundamental idea of Yom Kippur is that on this day the essential connection of a Jew with G‑d comes to the fore. The entry of the high priest into the Holy of Holies on this day (when the Temple stood) signifies the “entry” and opening of the deepest and holiest part of the Jew on the Day of Atonement. And the atonement for sin on this day stems from this fact: in truth, a Jew can never be severed from G‑dliness; any un-G‑dly act that may have been committed during the year is alien and external to his true being. When the true self of the Jew is exposed, he brings forth the part of himself that is always one with G‑d, and there his external and superficial acts melt away.]