July 21, 2007
6 Av 5767
This last of the three special haftarot before Tisha b\’Av is perhaps the harshest of all. Isaiah\’s critique in this haftarah, which precedes the destruction of the First Temple by centuries, is a biting indictment of Judean society and its social and religious failings. All of this coming from a prophet whose popular image is as an agent of comfort. In one of his most striking condemnations, Isaiah compares the sinful nation to the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, the biblical paradigm of evil: \”Had not the Lord of Hosts left us some survivors, we should be like Sodom, another Gomorrah. Hear the word of the Lord, you chieftains of Sodom; Give ear to our instruction, you folk of Gomorrah.\” (Verses 9-10)
In the verses preceding this comparison, Isaiah notes events which seem to reflect the subjugation of Judea by the Assyrian conqueror, Sennacharib: \”Your land is a waste, your cities burnt down; before your eyes the yield of your fields is consumed by strangers.\” (verse 7) These events indicate to the prophet that the people\’s behavior must have warranted such harsh punishment. He further concludes that if God had not left a remnant of survivors of this catastrophe, the nation would have become identified by its ungodly behavior and the resultant events with the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, known for being destroyed as a consequence of their sins. While the prophet himself merely alludes to this identification, God actually takes up the image and applies it to the nation and its behavior, identifying the nation and its leaders with Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Talmud records an early rabbinic practice where mourners would get up and justify their loss as a justifiable punishment brought upon them as a result of their sins: \”Our Rabbis taught: Those who are occupied with the funeral speeches, if the dead body is still before them, slip out one by one and recite the Shema\’; if the body is not before them, they sit and recite it, and he [the mourner] sits silent; they stand up and say the tefillah and he stands up and accepts God\’s judgment and says: Sovereign of the Universe, I have sinned much before Thee and Thou didst not punish me one thousandth part. May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to close up our breaches and the breaches of all Thy people the house of Israel in mercy!\”
Later Talmudic sages rejected this practice on the seeming grounds that calling attention to one\’s sinful behavior was calling for potential disaster, using Isaiah\’s allusion and God\’s actual comparison as proof: \”Abaye said: A man should not speak thus, since R. Simeon b. Lakish said, and so it was taught in the name of R. Jose: A man should never speak in such a way as to give an opening to Satan. And R. Joseph said: What text proves this? Because it says: We were almost like Sodom. What did the prophet reply to them? Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom.\” (Berachot 19a)
This passage became the focus of an interesting debate between certain Spanish sages committed to philosophy/naturalistic outlook and those committed to a more traditional viewpoint who defended the efficacy of prayer. The philosophers argued that prayer, blessings and curses had no efficacy. Rabbi Shlomo bar Avraham Aderet (Rashba – 13th century) rejected this stance, noting the above passage as proof. He further argued that even those who maintain the \’scientific\’ position cannot explain every world phenomenon – so, the efficacy of prayer is but one of the phenomena that they cannot explain. (Responsa Rashba 1:408) The conclusion from the above passage, however, was not codified as law by any Sephardic authority and was probably taken solely as wise advice. It was codified as halakha by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rama), the leading Ashkenazi authority at the time of the Shulkhan Arukh: A mourner should not say: \’I was not punished according to the seriousness of my sins, for one should not provide Satan an opportunity to prosecute our sins.\” (Shulkhan Arukh Y.D. 376:2 Gloss)
It seems safe to take from this discussion that it is not wise to enter into a debate over the accounting of divine justice. As the Rashba notes, there are subjects which will probably always be beyond us. This does not preclude our efforts to rectify whatever situation life may confront us with, both with our most determined actions and our sincerest prayers.
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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