The following meditation was written by Doug Hood’s son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University
“Isn’t this the fast I choose – releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?”
(Isaiah 58:6,7 Common English Bible)
Their bonds broken and shackles shattered, the ancient Judeans returned from their Babylonian captivity to find Jerusalem a wasted ruin. The city of the Davidic kings, Solomon’s Temple, and the Ark of the Covenant, the refugees found this former center of Jewish religious, political, and social life a shell of its former self, destroyed, depopulated, profaned. The Holiest of the Holies violated, the treasuries looted, the buildings smashed, life could never go back to normal for the Jewish people. And indeed the exile permanently changed the face of their religion. Once a faith that acknowledged the existence of other gods, this new Judaism was doggedly monotheistic. Once a people ruled by kings, now they were led by scribes, sages, and priests. And where once the thought of a religion without a central temple was unthinkable, now they praised a God who faithfully followed his children throughout the world. As prominent Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann once wrote: “With the exile, the religion of Israel comes to an end and Judaism begins.”
The fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah offers us a glimpse into the metamorphosis of post-exilic Judaism. While the entire book is traditionally attributed to the 8th-century BCE prophet, the last ten chapters are now believed by scholars to be a collection of anonymous oracles recorded three hundred years later during the reconstruction of Jerusalem. The portrait they paint is not always comforting. Much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time who competed to see who could pray the loudest in public, this chapter depicts the wealthy ostentatiously mourning and praying for restoration while ignoring the poor and needy among them. Specifically, the wealthy are shown to brag about their extravagant ritualistic fasting where they starve themselves in sackcloth and ashes. To which the oracles respond with a simple and direct how dare you? Isn’t the fast that God demands the salvation of the helpless among them? The literal feeding of the hungry, the literal housing of the homeless, the literal clothing of the naked? The God of this new Judaism cared not for their theatrics. Instead, this new god who was God demanded concrete, literal solutions to economic and social injustice among his children. Only then could Jerusalem truly be rebuilt.
Almost two and half thousand years have passed since the time of Isaiah, and the world finds itself again in a time of devastating crisis. As the Coronavirus pandemic forces the international community into a global quarantine, it feels like things will never be the same again. The wealth and prosperity we assumed would protect us have proved worthless as even the richest countries with the best medical resources have been devastated. The stories we hear in the news are horrific: farmers forced to let food rot in their fields; doctors and nurses forced to care for the diseased without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); millions – including this writer – being forced into unemployment with no lasting economic safety net. We hear of the homeless in Las Vegas being made to sleep in parking spaces in parking lots so they won’t infect each other. We hear of the government wasting millions on Blue Angels flyovers to honor the very healthcare workers they refuse to properly fund. And we hear of people like Leilani Jordan, a 27-year-old grocery store clerk in Maryland who died after being forced to work without gloves or hand sanitizer. When her family received their daughter’s last paycheck – literal blood money – they found that they’d lost their little girl for only $20.64.
Much like the post-exile Judeans, we find ourselves on the threshold of total societal transformation. Things won’t go back to normal because things can’t go back to normal. Too many systems have been proven ineffective, too many laws have been proven useless, too many people have been proven expendable. Not only can’t things go back to normal, things shouldn’t go back to normal. Not, at least, if we want to honor God, the God who demanded the end of useless fasting and the implementation of social and economic reforms in the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah. How do we rebuild after the quarantine ends? By working to ensure there are no homeless to stuff into parking lots, by fighting to properly equip healthcare professionals and first responders, by tearing down the systems of old to make sure nobody dies for a $20.64 paycheck ever again.