This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, is the opening of the last book of the Torah, 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 portion, are obscure. Normally, the selection is tied to the content of the portion, or to a key word or personality in the Torah reading.
However, the rhythm of the Jewish calendar also helps 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 the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (586 BCE and 70 CE) is commemorated. It is the last of three haftarot 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 sorrow and reflective repentance. Its negative gravitational pull attracted other historical disasters, regardless of whether they occurred on that specific day. The expulsion of the Jews from various European countries during the Middle Ages, for example, was believed to have occurred on the Ninth of Av.
As we anticipate Tisha B’Av, we find the words of Isaiah, who lived sometime between 750 and 700 BCE, 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).
This is Isaiah’s vision of what will befall Jerusalem and its people if they remain faithless. As with most of the prophets, prophecies of destruction were meant as predictions but warnings. If the people continue to sin, then punishment will follow. The prophets’ primary goal was to motivate fidelity to the covenant and to God, and avoid the fate disobedience confirmed.
This view worked well prospectively, but was more difficult to live with retrospectively. It was one thing to say 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.
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 continued to believe in them and not abandon them. Without such an interpretation, the people might have abandoned the covenant altogether, or fallen into a state of depression from which recovery would have been impossible.
But when we reach the modern period, we find it increasingly difficult simply to endorse the prophetic version of history.
Put simply, the horrors of the Holocaust cannot be explained as a consequence of the infidelity of Jews to the covenant. Geopolitical, military, and economic forces beyond the reach of Israel’s moral quest determined the destruction of the 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 Jewish state situated between the great empires of Babylon and Egypt.
So what do we as modern Jews make of Tisha B’Av and the vision of Isaiah?
There is a certain sense of liberation from the prophetic theology of the past. It is probably healthy to avoid ascribing to specific human behaviors the rationalization for global catastrophe. But it is also humbling to realize that despite our best efforts and commitments, some national-political disasters are going to occur.
Perhaps we can still learn from Isaiah, who preached not only 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 so often manifest evil.
We have seen it in our own day, 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.