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Haftarah Parshat Devarim, Shabbat Hazon

Haftarah Parshat Devarim – Shabbat Hazon (Isaiah 1:1-27)
August 2, 2014 / 6 Av 5774

This Shabbat we read the third of the three special haftarot of admonition (Tlata d’Poranuta) which precede Tisha b’Av, the day on which we mourn the destruction of both the first and second temples. It is known as Shabbat Hazon on account of the first word of the haftarah – “Hazon Yishayahu – The prophecy of Isaiah”. The prophetic tradition understood tragedy to be a result of sinful behavior. Building on this idea, the rabbinic sages saw in the liturgical recitation of prophecies carrying this message a poignant call to mend the kind of behavior which might lead to such tragedies.  It is in this light that we must read Isaiah’s message.

Isaiah’s censure of his people is biting. In one verse, he compares their disloyalty to God unfavorably to that of domesticated animals: “An ox knows its owner, an ass its master’s crib: Israel does not know, My people takes no thought.” (1:3)

In what way are animals more discerning than people? What makes their loyalty more dependable than that of a human being? Rashi offers two alternative explanations: 1. Domesticated animals fear their masters and as a consequence will not disregard their master’s commands while Israel, in contrast, disregarded God; 2. Once a bull learns its task, it becomes habituated to that task. Once an ass has been fed, it carries out its tasks. Israel, on the other hand, disregarded God despite having been redeemed and cared for in the desert.

Rabbi David Kimche proffered a different explanation. He asserted that domesticated animals remember their masters out of a sense of utility, having an innate sense of reward and punishment. He continues: “But Israel, who are the people whom I acquired from the house of bondage, do not realize that I have done good for them, and that I gave them a land as an inheritance… for it they recognized this, they would not have left Me and served others in My place. Nor did they discern that through their observance of My Torah it would be good for them and in their leaving Me and My Torah it will be bad. How is it that they did not discern this?”

Each of these explanations assumes that human beings have a capacity for discernment which animals lack. They also have the ability to make choices in a way that animals are incapable of doing. This is what makes Isaiah’s comparison, a fortiori, so powerful. If those without these human gifts are capable of loyalty and of doing what is good for them, then how is it possible for the humanly gifted not to have this capacity? Alas, we seem to experience every day that having the capacity to make wise decisions is no guarantor that they will be made.

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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