Parashat Devarim 5777

Cantor & Student Rabbi Gershon Silins, 28 July 2017

This week, the portion that is read is Devarim, and this Shabbat is called Shabbat Chazon, which reflects the first word of the Haftarah, Isaiah 1:1-27. It is the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha b’Av, the terrible day in the Jewish calendar that is associated with many tragic events, including the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. Chazon means vision; it is the word Isaiah uses to describe his prophecy. Isaiah’s vision is an indictment of the society of his time, and a challenge to the significance of the rituals that made up the sacrificial cult, which for Isaiah had become empty of meaning, and had degenerated into hypocrisy. It is a compelling ethical statement, and one that challenges us today as well. But it is not just Isaiah’s accusation that makes this vision so compelling, it is also the beauty of his language. As Charles Middleburgh has noted in his recent book, The Prophets of Israel: A Sideways View, the reading of the Haftarah is too often a moment when our congregants “switch off,” perhaps because we have failed to help them connect to the texts that are represented in the prophetic readings that make up the Haftarah readings. These words of Isaiah are a particularly powerful and beautiful example of what we too often miss.

Isaiah says, what God really wants is not sacrifices, but rather that we
Trample My courts no more;
Bringing oblations is futile,
Incense is offensive to Me
New moon and Sabbath,
Proclaiming of solemnities
Assemblies with iniquity,
I cannot abide…

Wash yourselves clean;
Put your evil doings
Away from My sight.
Cease to do evil;
Learn to do good
Devote yourselves to justice
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.

Isaiah believed that the Northern Kingdom had fallen because of its sinfulness, and that the same thing would happen to his own city. God would allow it to be destroyed, but a remnant would survive, and that remnant would have to embrace justice and make it the foundation of the new Jerusalem. Isaiah is not so much against ritual as he is against hypocrisy. And even more, he holds justice to be the principal thing. The very survival of the people, their city and their nation is dependent upon their commitment to justice. Without this commitment, ritual counts for nothing.

The prophetic understanding is a dramatic reshaping of the Jewish enterprise. These rituals, such as the one for the new month, were of major importance in biblical times. The sacrificial system was the principal pathway to God, the only way people could approach God. But Isaiah made it clear to his listeners that it would no more be possible to believe that their sins were expunged because they had offered the appropriate number of sheep or pigeons on the altar. No more could they hide behind the propriety of observance, by providing God with the sweet savour of burning sacrifices that God had commanded. Isaiah’s prophecy was a challenge to his contemporaries, and it remains a challenge for us today.

Isaiah’s vision is also a lesson for us as to how to read the difficult texts that we find in our Torah and other traditional texts. Yes, we must study them, but we must also challenge them with the ethical tools and understanding of our day, just as Isaiah did in his.

Isaiah’s vision leaves us, as it did his contemporaries, little room to persuade ourselves of our own right conduct. How many times do we balance the pros and cons of a situation, the cost-benefit analysis to decide what is the right thing to do? And how often do we instead wait for the voice that Isaiah hears, that calls us not to mere survival, but to righteousness? Isaiah’s vision is an example of how to live through terror with faith and the hope of salvation. God had commanded the sacrifices in great detail, but God had also commanded that the children of Israel be holy. From Isaiah we learn what such holiness might be, as this Haftarah concludes: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and its repentant people by righteousness.
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