August 2, 2003
The blame for the tragic fall of the first Temple falls squarely on the Babylonian empire and for the fall of the second Temple on the Roman empire. Jewish tradition, however, greets these tragedies not by blaming our adversaries, but with introspection. For the Jew, these tragic downfalls are treated as endemic to the Jewish people. They are caused by fatal flaws in Jewish society which need to be rectified. Implicit in this world-view seems to be the idea that building a better future will not be found in blaming others (despite their culpability) but rather in improving oneself and in repentance. Maimonides identifies this as the main purpose of fast days. In particular, the fast days associated with the destruction of the Temples inspire us to adopt this idea on a national level. Isaiah’s message, read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha b’Av, focuses not on the geo-political events which led to downfall of the First Commonwealth at the hands of the Babylonians but rather on the moral and religious deterioration of the nation of Israel. The sages positioned this haftarah before Tisha b’Av because they correctly perceived thatb the national problems at the time of Isaiah were timeless, with potential to afflict and destroy nations.
What was true in Isaiah’s times (~750 BCE) also rang true for the Sages who lived years after the destruction of the Second Temple (3-4th century). Isaiah wrote: “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves.” (Isaiah 1:23) On this verse, we find these comments in the following midrash: “Rabbi Berechiah said: ‘There is a story about a woman whose kettle was stolen. When she went to complain to a judge she found the kettle sitting on his stove.’ In another story, there was a man who coat was stolen. When he went to report it to the judge, he found his coat on the bed of the judge. Rabbi Levi relates a similar story: ‘There was a woman who bribed a judge with a silver lamp. Her adversary went and bribed the judge with a golden horse. The following day, the first litigant found the original judgment in the case overturned. She said to the judge: ‘Your honor, may my silver lamp not provide you with any light.’ The judge responded to her: ‘A golden horse came and overturned your silver lamp.’ This is what is meant when Isaiah says: ‘Everyone loves bribes and runs after gifts.’ (Ibid.) (adapted from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana Eicha 9 – Mandelbaum ed. 260)
Why does Isaiah chastise the people in his generation? Why do the sages tell these awful stories and others like them? Both hope that they will awaken the nation to the wrongs in their societies and hope that they will bring about positive change and ultimate redemption. This is probably the reason why Isaiah ends his harsh prophecy with the words: \”Zion will be redeemed with justice and they who return to her with righteousness.” (Isaiah 1:27)