From the Prophet Isaiah:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the calamity that will come from far away?
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Isaiah 10:1-3a (NRSV) – December 20, 2012.)
The first word of this bit of Isaiah in Hebrew is often translated “Woe” but here in the New Revised Standard Version, it has been rendered “Ah”. The Hebrew is hôy ; it is a negative exclamation pronounced “oy!” Perhaps the “woe” translation is better. However, the construction “woe to you . . . . ” has taken on an oracular connotation to modern ears and that is not what the prophet is saying here. He will later make prediction about these oppressors, but for now he is simply making an indictment.
It is an indictment against the leaders of his own community. This is not a part of the prophet’s writings in which international politics play any part whatsoever; this is a complaint against his own people.
Whenever I read the prophets’ writings and they begin a statement with this Hebrew word hôy, I often wonder what tone of voice to use. I got a clue recently while talking to a Jewish friend.
My friend is a 75-year-old woman. She may be the only Jew in my small town; she claims to be but I don’t think she is. A couple of weeks ago, my friend and I were together with some other people at a luncheon. We were talking about the current “fiscal cliff” nonsense and the issue of whether Social Security and Medicare would be cut or otherwise changed. “Oy vey!” she said, “They’re going to rob us of our pensions!” She said it in that Jewish grandmother caricaturish voice that Jon Stewart sometimes mimics on his Daily Show television program.
I don’t know if the Hebrew word hôy is the origin of the Yiddish expression, “Oy vey!” But when I read this passage today, my friend’s comment and her tone of voice came immediately to mind. Think of Jon Stewart’s caricature, think of the cartoon character Zoidberg on Futurama, think of the character Howard Wolowitz’s never-seen mother on The Big Bang Theory, think of Judd Hirsch’s portrayal of Jeff Goldblum’s father in the movie Independence Day. Read Isaiah’s words in that tone of voice . . . a tone of exasperated disappointment, of deeply negative resignation, of an anger that can only be uttered in sorrow.
Last Friday the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place and in my sermon on Sunday (posted elsewhere on this blog) I said that I’d had a vision of unwrapped Christmas presents sitting under unlighted Christmas trees in darkened rooms. Today, similarly, I have a vision of the lonely elderly, the widowed sitting alone beside ancient menorahs or in rooms with a few tattered Christmas decorations. I know they are out there; I’ve visited them, as I know my colleagues in ordained ministry have all done. As Advent comes to a close this week and we put up our Christmas decorations (if they are not already up) and make our final preparations for Christmas, Isaiah’s prophecy reminds us of the plight of the elderly poor. They have been around a long long time . . . and so, apparently, have the political leaders “who make iniquitous decrees [and] write oppressive statutes.”
This Advent, this Christmas, and in the coming year . . . perhaps we should do more than simply utter exclamations of exasperated disappointment.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
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