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Devarim 5773

Haftarah Parshat Devarim
Shabbat Hazon
(Isaiah 1:1-27)
July 13, 2013

6 Av 5773

At the beginning of this week’s special haftarah for the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, Isaiah describes the horrific results of an attack on the southern kingdom of Judea which resulted in near total devastation. Because he attributed this tragedy to the people’s moral and religious disloyalty to God, he expressed his gratitude to God for at least leaving a vestige of the people to recoup from the traumatic losses suffered by the people, but he did so in the harshest of terms: “Had not the Lord of Hosts left us some survivors, we would be like Sodom, another Gomorrah.” (1:9)

While in this verse, Isaiah intended to note that the nation had been spared total destruction, unlike these evil cities, in the next verse, he makes a connection between Judean behavior and that of these cities by referring to Judea’s leaders as if they were the chieftains of these cities: “Hear the word of the Lord, you chieftains of Sodom; give ear to our God’s instruction, you folk of Gomorrah!” (1:10)

The juxtaposition of these two verses plays an interesting role in the following Talmudic discussion about the question of what a person should do when prayer obligations occur at the same time as a funeral: “The sages teach: Those who are occupied with the funeral speeches, if the dead body is still before them, the listeners should 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: Master of the Universe, I have sinned much before You and You have not punished me one thousandth part. May it be Your will, O Lord our God, to close up our breaches and the breaches of all Thy people the house of Israel in mercy! Abaye objected: A man should not speak so, since R. Simeon b. Lakish said, and so it was taught in the name of Rabbi Yossi: A man should never speak in such a way as to give an opening to Satan (al tiftah peh l’Satan). And R. Joseph said: What text proves this? Because it says: “We were like Sodom”. What did the prophet reply to them? “Hear the word of the Lord, you chieftains of Sodom.” (Berachot 19a)

Abaye rejected the opening opinion in this discussion which had the mourner thank God for not sending excessive tragedy, lest it open the door for more tragedy. He based his objection on the juxtaposition of the two verses in Isaiah mentioned above, noting that the very notion of comparing Judah to Sodom, must have led the Divine scheme to treat the nation as if it really was like Sodom.

Moderns shy from the notion that a person might bring upon him or herself judgment by verbal suggestion. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, gave Rabbi Yossi’s formulation a psycho-religious interpretation. He asserts that if a person makes a wrong assessment of how God metes out judgment, assuming that God is acting with mercy where judgment was appropriate, it will skew his or her moral compass, making proper behavior more difficult. (See Ein Ayah Berachot 19a p. 99) If you assume that your behavior was bad, but you got off easy, you are likely to readjust your behavior assuming you can get away with even worse behavior.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, this is an important message. We must be able to properly assess who we are as individuals and as a people in order to be able to adjust our behavior appropriately. In this way, we can truly bring about the redemption, we so sorely yearn for.

About This Commentary

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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