This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Chazon due to the first word of the Haftarah, the opening of the book of Isaiah. This is the final of the three Haftarot of destruction. The first two were appropriately selected from Jeremiah, “the prophet of doom.” Jeremiah’s warnings were a last attempt to save the nation of Israel from exile and destruction. Alas, the people did not wish to hear, and Jeremiah became an outcast, failing to move his people to change their ways. Isaiah lived over a century before the destruction of the First Temple. The book begins by noting that his prophecy spanned four kings of Judea, concluding in the time of the righteous king Hezekiah.
Isaiah’s opening words are a shocking avalanche of abuse, a tirade of castigation. He lashes out mercilessly in a crushing indictment of his people. “Woe, O sinful nation, people heavy with sin, offspring of evil, destructive children; they have forsaken the Lord, they have angered the Holy One of Israel, they have strayed backwards.” (Isaiah 1:4)
Isaiah continues, describing Israel as a cripple, with lesions afflicting its body from head to toe, its lands and cities are consumed and devoured, overturned by strangers. The prophet likens Judea to Sodom and Gomorrah, calling its leaders princes of Sodom.
Despite Isaiah’s beginning chapter of harsh criticism, he is better known as the prophet of consolation. Following these three Haftarot depicting tragedy and destruction, we read seven consecutive Haftarot of consolation and hope. All seven of the subsequent Haftarot of consolation are selected from the book of Isaiah. What criticism does the wise prophet of consolation have for his people? Unlike his successor Jeremiah, Isaiah does not direct his arrows toward the defectors and apathetic Jews of his time. He does not level admonishment at those who have abandoned their faith and who ignore their heritage. His focus is rather on the core of observant Jews, those who adhere to the faith and perform the rituals.
Isaiah accuses these Jews of hypocrisy. He blasts their “lip service.” Isaiah declares that the people of Judea have betrayed the Lord, hiding behind the rituals of worship which belie a hollow core, lacking true devotion. “Why do I need your many sacrifice? – says the Lord – I am engorged with offerings of rams and fattened animals; I do not desire the blood of bulls, sheep and goats. When you come to appear before Me – who requested from you to trample my courtyards?” (11-12)
While the prior selected Haftarot were warnings of impending disaster, with the opening chapter of Jeremiah establishing his appointment and urging him to be a rock of solidity in the face of moral degeneration, this last of the series is more direct, and more limited in the scope of its admonishment. It places responsibility squarely upon the shoulders of those who remain affiliated and involved, to be sincere in their service, to be mindful of the spirit of the law and not only its letter.
The target community of Isaiah’s words may have felt resentful of this rebuke. After all, they were the ones who showed up to synagogue, they were the people who preserved the traditions of Torah as opposed to all the others. Is this what they get for their loyalty? We tend to view our world with a sense of relativism. We are good enough as long as we maintain advantage over the other. I will escape an audit from the department of revenue so long as there are bigger fraudsters around me. I only need to be better than the next person. A story is told about a small campsite which was beset by a hungry bear in the middle of the night. Everyone panicked and began to run. One camper scrambled to put on shoes. “Why are you bothering to put on shoes? someone demanded. You can’t outrun a bear in the forest even with shoes!” The camper calmly replied, “I don’t need to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you.”
Sometimes being just a little better, or faster, than the other is sufficient to ensure survival. But in God’s point of view we don’t compare to others. Righteousness is not a matter of relativity.
A colleague, who happens to be a Chabad rabbi, was once challenged by a participant in one of his classes. The questioner was not observant, and he wanted to know why the rabbi was professing God’s love of all His people when many of God’s children have strayed so far from home. The rabbi responded, “It is not so important where you are now, what matters is rather the direction in which you are heading.” Isaiah perceived that the stagnation of his people was problematic not only because of the lack of sincerity their worship entailed. More importantly, their lack of sincerity diminished the quality of traditional observance in the perception of others.
Through our observance of tradition, through our embodiment of Torah values, we become ambassadors of God to the world around us. But in a more limited scope, those Jews who have not cast off the yolk of service to God are ambassadors to other Jews who have become bereft of their heritage. Often their journey home is affected by our attitudes and the sincerity of our convictions. A hollow observance is not merely counterproductive to the practitioner, it further disenfranchises those who might otherwise be inspired to come back closer to home.
During one of the talks in our lecture series exploring the differences and attitudes of traditional and progressive Jews I remarked that progressive Jews often focus on the spirit of the law at the expense of its letter. But equally subject to criticism are those traditional Jews who adhere to the letter of the law and ignore its spirit. It is this group that the prophet takes to task here. In this sense the body of Judaism is smitten with bruises from its head to its toes. It is overtaken by foreigners, overturned by values which may not stem from true Torah spirit. We may have introduced religious sanctity to the color of one’s shirt and the style of head covering we choose to wear, but areas in which the Torah ascribes holiness we may have fallen short.
The prophet concludes with a formula for the repair of this issue. “Zion shall be redeemed through justice, and its captivity through charity.” (vs. 27) The shackles of the letter of the law, the constraints of religious observance, are redeemed through a recognition and return to the spirit of Torah values, to the sense of justice and care for others the Torah advocates so fiercely for. The charity of loving our fellow without judgment, the justice of ensuring the welfare of every person, regardless of identity and their personal challenges, is what will ultimately bring back the unity of Israel and ultimately its end of suffering and persecution by others.