Parshat Devarim/Shabbat Hazon
July 28, 2001
In the Tanach, the three largest prophetic books are arranged in chronological order: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) however, arranges these three books differently: Jeremiah, Ezekiel and then Isaiah. When asked to justify this arrangement, the Talmud gives the following explanation: Since the book of Jeremiah contains only prophecies of destruction, it comes first; Ezekiel is a book which contains in part prophecies of destruction and in part prophecies of consolation, so it comes in the middle. Isaiah is a book filled entirely with consolation, so it is last. The book of Isaiah which the Talmud says is filled exclusively with prophecies of consolation nevertheless opens with the harshest rebuke found in all of the prophets. It is this prophecy which gives its name to the Shabbat preceding Tisha b’Av – Shabbat Hazon.
Why should a book which is filled with consolation open with rebuke? Why introduce Tisha b’Av with a haftarah condemning the behavior of the victims of the destruction rather than its perpetrators? Maimonides, in his great legal work, the Mishneh Torah, asserts that the recognition that tragedy occurs because of the misdeeds of the community is an important step in the process of Tshuva – repentance. (see Hilchot Taanit Chapter 1) Maimonides’s insight is an integral part of the Jewish approach to tragedy. He chooses to see tragedy as a means for facilitating repair and improvement.
Isaiah’s biting critique of his society is read before Tisha B’Av for this very reason. Isaiah reproves the people for their disloyalty to God in terms unparalleled in their harshness. He compares their loyalty to God unfavorably with the loyalty of animals to their masters: “An ox knows its owner, an ass its master’s crib: Israel does not know, My people takes no thought.” (Isaiah 1:3)
The Radak explains that animals, even though they are not discerning creatures, have the ability to refrain from injury and to seek out benefit. Human beings, at the very least, should be loyal to God for these same reasons. Unfortunately, they are not.
The implications of this disloyalty are reflected not only in the sincerity of our worship (verses 11-15) but more significantly in our daily behavior. Our relationships with others, our treatment of the needy, our justice and our compassion are equally a barometer of our cognizance of our responsibility to God (verses 16-17). Isaiah’s message is not one of despair. We do not enter into our state of mourning without hope. Rather we are comforted with the following image: “Come let us reach an understanding, said the Lord. Be your sins like crimson, they can turn white as snow, be they red as died wool, they can become like fleece.” (verse 18)
Our problems and shortcomings should not overcome us. Rather we should turn our tragedy to our advantage. Through soul-searching and tikkun – repair – we can reestablish our relationship with God and restore our spiritual health as individuals and as a people. We can rebuild and become whole again. We can turn tragedy into consolation.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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