This week’s Torah portion is Devarim, the opening section of the last book of the Torah known in English as Deuteronomy. This Shabbat, however, is known as Shabbat Hazon, after the opening words of the special Haftara reading: “Hazon Y’Shayahu”, “[This is] the vision of [the prophet] Isaiah”.
The origins of the tradition of the Haftara, the supplementary biblical reading associated with the weekly Torah portion, are obscure. Normally, the selection is tied to the content of the Torah portion, or to a key word or personality found in the Torah reading.
However, the rhythm of the Jewish calendar also helps to determine the Haftara reading, as is the case this week. This Shabbat comes just before the mid-summer fast day of Tisha B’Av on which we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (586 BCE and 70 CE). It is the last of three special Haftaras of “rebuke”, in which the prophets of ancient Israel warn the people to repent lest their sins bring national ruin.
Tisha B’Av was, throughout the centuries, a day of serious sorrow and reflective repentance. It’s negative gravitational pull attracted other historical disasters of Jewish history, regardless of whether they occurred on that specific day. Thus, for example, the expulsion of the Jews from various European countries during the Middle Ages was believed to have occurred on Tisha B’Av.
As we anticipate Tisha B’Av, we find the words of Isaiah, who lived sometime between 750-700 BCE, intense, angry, and accusatory. “A sinful nation, a people burdened with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children that traffic in corruption…your country is desolate, your cities incinerated, your property consumed in your presence by an alien people.” (Isaiah 1:4,7).
Of course, these last words are Isaiah’s vision of what will befall Jerusalem and its inhabitants if the people remain faithless. As was the case with most of the Israelite prophets, the prophecies of destruction were not meant to be predictions but warnings. If the people continue to sin, then punishment will follow. The goal of the prophets was primarily to motivate fidelity to the Covenant and to God, and as a consequence to avoid the fate that disobedience confirmed.
This view of history — that what happened to the Jews was determined by their behavior and their [lack of] faith — worked well prospectively, but was more difficult to live with retrospectively. It was one thing to say that the people needed to change their behavior, that Israelite society needed to be grounded in ethics derived from the Torah. But it was quite another to say, after the fact, that the destruction of Jerusalem was brought about by the faithlessness of the people.
This view of the interaction of faith and history was shared by ancient Israel, rabbinic Judaism, and the popular religious imagination of generations of Jews. It is codified in the traditional liturgy where on festivals a prayer reads “because of our sins we were exiled from our homeland…”. In its more folkloristic version, it is articulated by those who say to victims of misfortune, “See, God punished you”.
The observance of Tisha B’Av is an opportunity to reexamine the adaptive theology whereby generations of Jews managed to persevere in the face of adversity, oppression, even destruction. It is probably a good thing that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a host of other prophets convinced the people of ancient Israel that the fall of Jerusalem was their punishment by a God who yet believed in them and would not abandon them. Without such an interpretation, the people might have abandoned the Covenant altogether, or fallen into a corporate state of depression from which recovery would have been impossible.
But when we reach the 20th century, we find that we can no longer simply endorse the prophetic version of history. Having moved out of the supernatural universe of discourse in which our ancestors lived, we find it increasingly difficult to endorse their theological rationalizations for their fate.
Put simply, the horrors of the Holocaust cannot be explained as a consequence of the infidelity of Jews to the Covenant — nor need it be. Read back into history, we need no longer say “because of our sins…” Geo-political, military, and economic forces beyond the reach of ancient Israel’s moral quest played the determinative role in the destruction of the first and second Temples. It is unlikely that unanimous observance of the Torah on the part of the population would have significantly altered the fate of a small independent Jewish state situated between two great ancient empires of Babylon and Egypt.
So what do we as modern Jews make of Tisha B’Av, and of the vision of Isaiah preserved in this week’s Haftara?
There is a certain sense of liberation from the “if…then” theology of the past. It is probably healthy to avoid ascribing to specific human behaviors the rationalization for global catastrophe. But it is also a bit terrifying to realize that despite our best efforts and commitments, some national- political disasters are going to engulf us regardless.
Perhaps we can still learn from Isaiah, who not only preached the coming destruction, but also restoration and renewal. “Though your sins be scarlet, they shall whiten as snow…Zion will be redeemed with justice, and they who are restored with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:18, 27).
The key to understanding Jewish history is not in accepting the explanations of why, but in studying the ways of how: how, following disaster after disaster, the Jewish people found the courage to start anew, to recommit to Torah, and to reaffirm that life had — or at least could have — meaning, notwithstanding the evil that was so often manifest.
In our own day we have seen it, as the modern state of Israel arose: “After all this, you shall be called the city of righteousness, a community of faithfulness” (Isaiah 1:26). As we mourn the destruction of the Temples and the coordinate loss of life, so may we also affirm that meaning can be found, and that history itself can be redeemed.