Light from the Sidra

Devarim ('Words')

Torah: Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22. Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

Snow white

There was a time when almost every home I went into had a print of Claude Monet’s The Poppy Field, near Argenteuil on their front room wall. But so many copies I saw were sans poppies, and hardly anyone has the picture on their walls any more. The problem was that in bright sunlight the magenta ink on the print faded pretty quickly, leaving a washed out picture made up only of black, blue and yellow. The annoying thing about red, though, is that when you actually want to get rid of it, you can’t (I know because, this lunchtime, I dropped beetroot down the front of my best blue shirt and it won’t come out!). Many years ago, for reasons known only to herself, my wife put a certain small red item of ladies clothing in a wash with my white shirts and I was left with pink shirts that never came white and which, for the record, I have never worn since!

The coming Sabbath is Shabbat Chazon – ‘the Sabbath of foretelling’ – the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av, on which the Haftarah portion is Isaiah 1:1-27, as the final of the ‘three of affliction,’ readings. In Isaiah 1:18, God invites Israel to ‘reason’ with him in order that their sins which were the colour of scarlet might be as white as snow and though they are as red like crimson they can become like white wool. In the UK, in the last 25 years we have seen the anger of Muslims over books and cartoons they regard as blasphemous. We have witnessed the far from humorous irony of placards calling for the beheading of those who say Islam is a violent religion, while in Israel, the Orthodox Ya’acov (Jack) Teitel is now safely behind bars for the murder of several Arabs and the attempted murder of a family of messianic Jews.

YHWH the true God had far more reasons to be angry with Israel. In the book of Isaiah he foretells the destruction of the temple and in chapter 1, he reveals the underlying causes of that destruction. To the people of Isaiah’s day, it was unthinkable that the wrath of God should fall on them because far as outward religious observance was concerned, the people of Isaiah’s day appear to have been very conscientious. And yet in Isaiah 1:5, God describes Israel as a sick man: ‘The whole head is sick, and the whole heart is faint,’ and in the next verse the nation is portrayed as a man who has been beaten to within an inch of his life by the chastisement of God: ‘From the sole of the foot even to the head, no soundness is in it; only a wound and a stripe and a fresh blow; they have not been closed, nor bound up; nor was it softened with oil.’

The nation was, as Isaiah outs it in verse 4, ‘heavy with iniquity.’ In spite of their religiosity they had ‘scorned the Holy One of Israel.’ Even farm animals had more sense than God’s people: ‘The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's manger, but Israel does not know; My people have not understood’ (Isaiah 1:3).

But instead of bringing immediate judgement on Israel, God called the people to reason together with him. If they would respond and listen to their God their sins, which were like indelible scarlet, would become as white as snow. The Bible is the only religious document to call people to ‘reason.’ Job wanted to reason with God (Job 13:3) but when God showed up Job was reduced to silence. Israel didn’t answer God’s invitation and as a result Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and the nation experienced an exile from which it has not yet recovered.

During the period of the second temple, on Yom Kippur a piece of crimson wool was tied to the head of the goat for Azazel that was sent into the Judean desert. Crimson wool was also tied to the doors of the temple and, according to tradition, if the wool turned red atonement had been achieved but if the wool remained red, Israel’s sins remained unforgiven. The practice was based on Isaiah 1:18: ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as the crimson, they shall be like wool.’ In the bright glare of the Middle Eastern sun, red wool would bleach quicker than Monet’s poppies but according to Yoma 39b in The Talmud, during the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the crimson wool miraculously remained red. What a chilling thought that every year for forty years God worked a miracle to demonstrate to his people that their sins remained unforgiven!

Perhaps the nation refused to reason with God because they knew that if they did, they would have to change their way of thinking and their way of life. Perhaps they continue to refuse to reason with their God because they know they would not be able to win. But if only they would accept the divine invitation. What do they have to lose but their sins?

In Cincinnati in 1870, a young prostitute was found dead. Among her few effects was a poem she had apparently written herself. The poem, ‘Beautiful Snow,’ was evidently inspired by Isaiah 1:18 and appears to have been autobiographical. It created something of a sensation when it was first published in a Cincinnati newspaper soon after it was found. ‘Beautiful Snow’ is one of the most moving poems I have ever read and when you read it, you’ll see why.

Oh! The snow, the beautiful snow,

Filling the sky and the earth below,

Over the housetops, over the street,

Over the heads of people you meet;



Skimming along,

Beautiful snow! It can do no wrong;

Flying to kiss a fair lady's cheek,

Clinging to lips in frolicksome freak;

Beautiful snow from heaven above,

Pure as an angel, gentle as love!

Oh, the snow, the beautiful snow,

How the flakes gather and laugh as they go

Whirling about in maddening fun:



Hurrying by.

It lights on the face and it sparkles the eye;

And the dogs with a bark and a bound

Snap at the crystals as they eddy around;

The town is alive, and its heart is aglow,

To welcome the coming of beautiful snow.

How wild the crowd goes swaying along,

Hailing each other with humour and song;

How the gay sleighs like meteors flash by,

Bright for a moment, then lost to the eye:



Dashing they go

Over the crest of the beautiful snow;

Snow so pure as it falls from the sky,

To be trampled in time by the crowd rushing by -

To be trampled and tracked by thousands of feet

Till it blends with the filth in the horrible street.

Once I was pure as the snow, but I fell,

Fell like the snowflakes from heaven to hell;

Fell to be trampled as filth in the street,

Fell to be scoffed, to be spit on and beat;



Dreading to die,

Selling my soul to whoever would buy;

Dealing in shame for a morsel of bread,

Hating the living and fearing the dead.

Merciful God! I have fallen so low!

And yet I was once like the beautiful snow.

Once I was fair as the beautiful snow,

With an eye like a crystal, a heart like its glow;

Once I was loved for my innocent grace –

Flattered and sought for the charms of my face!



Sisters – all –

God and myself I have lost by my fall:

The veriest wretch that goes shivering by,

Will make a wide sweep lest I wander too night,

For all that is on or above me I know,

There is nothing so pure as the beautiful snow.

How strange it should be that this beautiful snow

Should fall on a sinner with nowhere to go!

How strange it should be when the night comes again,

If the snow and the ice struck my desperate brain!



Dying alone,

Too wicked for prayer, too weak for a moan

To be heard in the streets of the crazy town,

Gone mad in the joy of snow coming down:

To be and to die in my terrible woe,

With a bed and a shroud of the beautiful snow.

Helpless and foul as the trampled snow,

Sinner, despair not! For Christ stoopeth low

To rescue the soul that is lost in sin

And raise it to life and enjoyment again.



Dying – for thee

The Crucified hung on the cursed tree!

His accents of mercy fall soft on thine ear,

‘Is there mercy for me? Will He hear my weak prayer?’

O God, in the stream that for sinners did flow,


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