This week’s reading, from the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, is always read on the Shabbat preceding the Ninth of Av (Tish‘ah be-Av), a day of mourning that commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. The haftarah (reading from the Prophets) accompanying this portion is likewise fixed: it is always the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, verses 1-27. The two readings share one particular word, eikhah (alas!) that captures the essence of this sad time. In fact, this same word eikhah is also used as the Hebrew title of the book of Lamentations, read as part of Ninth of Av liturgy.
But the reading from Isaiah was chosen as the haftarah not merely because of this verbal tally. Isaiah describes in some detail the sins of the people—sins that, he said, brought about the conquest of the northern tribes at the hands of the Assyrian army in 722 BCE and their subsequent deportation to points unknown in the Assyrian empire.
What were they guilty of? Among other things, corruption and injustice: “From head to toe, no one is straight,” Isaiah says. Still worse, the institutions of religion are used by the guilty in a vain attempt to cover their wrongdoing. “What need do I have of all your sacrifices,” God says; “I’ve had enough burnt offerings of rams, suet of fatlings; I don’t want the blood of bulls and lambs and he-goats.” Instead, “Wash and be cleansed, and remove your evil from out of My sight. Stop your wrongdoing and practice doing what’s right.”
Such noble words are rarely given a serious audience; this is as true today as it was in Isaiah’s time. But even if catastrophe was not avoided, the words themselves survive. I have always been taken by the subtlety of Isaiah’s initial denunciation of his contemporaries: “An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s trough; Israel does not know, My people has not begun to understand.”
It used to be said about such lines that they are a good example of parallelism, said to be the hallmark of biblical poetry: each line divides into two clauses, and the two clauses say “the same idea in different words.” But we now know that this is really not a very good description of how these poetic lines work. Usually, they aren’t saying the same thing exactly.
In the case at hand, an ox may not be the noblest of animals, but it is generally obedient; two oxen can be yoked together without protest and jointly plow the farmer’s fields. It is in this sense that they know their owners, obediently doing what is demanded. But all a donkey is said to know in this verse is “its master’s trough.” No matter how disobedient he may be, when it comes time to be fed, the donkey will find the food that he is given. The same cannot be said of Israel. In this great, non-parallel descent, Israel comes in third: it does not know what an ox knows, it doesn’t even know what a donkey knows; in fact, it has not even begun to understand.
But this compact pair of lines has a secret addendum: the words “owner” and “master” were two ways of referring to the divine. Thus, the word “owner” (koneh) is sometimes used of God in the sense of “Creator” (Gen 14:19, 14:22; Deut 32:6, Ps 139:13, 78:54; Prov 8:22). As for “master” (ba‘al), this word was also the common name for a major Canaanite deity, Ba‘al/Hadad. So what the prophet is saying is that even a dumb beast knows enough to understand that he has a koneh. And even a donkey-like devotee of Ba‘al, however wrong he or she may be about the deity to be addressed, at least grasps the general principle that our food is given to us. Israel seems not even to have grasped this much; in fact, they haven’t even begun to understand.