Parashat Devarim

Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 20 July 2018

Shabbat Chazon is the name given to the third of three Haftarot of rebuke, read on the Sabbath preceding Tisha B’Av. Its name comes from the first word of the Haftarah – Chazon Y’shayahu ven Amotz‘The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, that he beheld concerning Judah and Jerusalem…’ (Isaiah 1:1)

This is no vision of Sinai swathed in deep cloud, nor the resplendent vision of God’s throne and sapphire pavement beheld by the elders with Moses. What is it that Isaiah sees and hears in these opening verses of his book? I imagine him in a world not so very different from the ruined land of Syria – perhaps he has already witnessed the march of Assyrian troops into the Northern Kingdom, devastating swathes of land and cities, taking hostage women and children, burning the buildings and razing to the ground every remnant of life there. Now parts of Judah and Jerusalem are threatened as brutal forces threaten to ravage the Sanctuary and to take into exile those who remain in the cities and surrounding countryside.

To whom can the prophet appeal? There is no United Nations or NATO, only the heavens above and earth beneath can deliver him from the revenge of a violent and overpowering regime: ‘Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth.’

The whole head is sick, the whole heart is ill.
From head to foot, nothing is sound:
Injuries, bruises, fresh wounds,
Not dressed, nor bound, nor softened with oil…

Your land is desolate,
Your cities burnt down…
It is desolation, like Sodom overthrown.

This is a haftarah of punishment: destruction has come because of the sins of the people Israel – their destructiveness and iniquity, their disloyalty and faithlessness, their estrangement from God and hypocritical offerings, the injustice and oppression shown to the poor and stranger, the perversion of rights delivered to orphan and widow.

Harsh and full of denunciation, the prophet blames the people for their tragedy. God’s role is to deliver retributive justice against those who, embracing allies and arms, have forsaken the vision of righteousness and peace.

Like heaven and earth, shall we remain silent witnesses to the world’s suffering? Is this the world into which we have been born – ‘uprootedness, estrangement, our starting again’? The march of progress is stagnant, static, a dream from two centuries ago, from which surely something different must emerge.

Over and over again a hasty dream that strives
To short-cut every shaky setback or hiccough,
All the ordinary fumblings of our frail lives,
Desires to broom the world from the ground up.
When too hurried visions have failed or faltered…

These are lines from the Irish poet, Micheal O’Siadhail whose dream is not the grand vision of perfection, beyond imagination, beyond even hope, but ‘nothing momentous or too high-flown, / Just some trace laid down, our mark made/in the give and take of lives…’ It is more simply, the keeping of a promise, something done for someone else, a common, humane decency, ‘gestures of love on streets in a fragile city.’

Tisha B’Av recalls the memory of past ages, the shattering of hopes and dreams, endings and change. In our gathering for prayers this coming Saturday night and Sunday, may we find our voices to protest against the injustices and suffering of the world; may we find the will to give yet more of ourselves, to lay down our ‘trace’ in decency, kindness, common encounter and may we pray ‘let there be peace, integrity and truth, soon and in our time: Amen.’

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