Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat D'varim 5759
Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22
July 17, 1999 4 Av 5759
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
The Shabbat before Tisha b'Av (the 24-hour fast day on the ninth of Av) bears the name Shabbat Hazon (the Sabbath of Vision). It derives from the first word of the haftara: "The vision [hazon] of Isaiah son of Amoz that he beheld concerning Judah and Jerusalem... (Isaiah 1:1)." In English the translation conveys a note of irony, because the word "vision" tends to connote a depiction of beauty and inspiration, whereas Isaiah is delivering a stern reprimand of the hypocrisy and injustice of Judah in the late eighth century B.C.E. The Hebrew word "hazon", in contrast, is neutral, stressing the divine source of the vision rather than what is depicted. The prophet is a seer by virtue of his access to an experience of revelation, irrespective of its content.
And yet the reprimand is informed by a value system that stirs the heart. The Temple in Jerusalem, where Isaiah had his first experience of God and reluctantly accepted the divine call with a sense of deep unworthiness, is not an end in itself. The ultimate purpose of the Torah is not to placate God with sacrifices but to enact God's conception of social justice into law. Sacrifices and prayers that conceal a pervasive fabric of inequity are an abomination to God. Isaiah has God inveigh against a religious establishment that lacks compassion:
I hate your new moons, your festival days;
They are a burden to Me;
I can bear [them] no more.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will avert My eyes from you;
however much you pray,
I will not listen,
while your hands are filled with blood.
Wash yourselves; cleanse yourselves,
put your evil doings away from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
learn to do good,
seek justice; relieve the oppressed.
Uphold the orphan's rights;
take up the widow's cause.
(Isaiah 1:14-17 trans. by Chaim Stern, The Haftarah Commentary, UAHC Press, p. 432)
The effect of this inimitable haftara is not only to prepare us for the commemoration to come, but to offer us a measure of solace. The destruction of the Temple was not the supreme calamity that could befall Judaism. A sanctuary whose priesthood turned a deaf ear to the agony of the oppressed had forfeited its claim to being holy. Hypocrisy only compounded the sin of injustice. God would continue to be available to those whose piety expressed itself in how they related to their fellow humans.
In that vein, the story is told that not long after the Romans had razed the Temple, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who in despair at the futility of the rebellion had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem while the battle for the city still raged, and Rabbi Yehoshua, one of his disciples destined for great leadership in the next generation, laid eyes on the ruins of the Temple on one of their walks. The disciple broke out in lament: "Woe be to us for what has been lost, the place where atonement was done for the sins of Israel." Not so his master: "My son, be not disconsolate. We have another form of atonement just as good, namely, the performance of good deeds, as the prophet Hosea said, 'For I desire goodness, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6; Avot de Rabbi Natan, Schechter, p. 21).'"
The point of the lesson is that we should not mourn unduly. If the doing of good deeds is equivalent to offering sacrifices then Jews will not be severed from God by the razing of the Temple. Indeed, from Rabban Yochanan's prooftext, we can see that adding to the sum of goodness in the world is preferable, because it helps sustain God's creation.
Nor was that lesson lost on Rabbi Yehoshua. Some time later, as excessive mourning over the leveled Temple spread, he confronted the vanguard of the extremists. "My sons, why have you stopped eating meat and drinking wine?" To which they replied "How can we eat meat which once was offered on the altar when it no longer exists? Or how can we drink wine which once was offered as a libation on the altar when it no longer exists?" Unerringly, Rabbi Yehoshua extracted the misguided logic that moved the zealots and turned it against them. "Listen, if that be the case, we should also cease our consumption of bread, fruit and water because all were used in the Temple."
So what should be done? Rabbi Yehoshua strove for balance: "Not to mourn at all is inadmissible, because the divine decree has been executed. But to mourn too much is equally inadmissible, because we never impose a decree on the community which it can't live by." Instead, he counseled a modest set of ritual reminders that Jews could incorporate into their personal lives to remember the loss (B.T. Bava Batra 60b).
In time the community came to express its collective grief in the annual summer fast of Tisha b'Av. And the fact that it absorbed the commemoration of still other national tragedies secured the day forever. On the ninth of Av, the Mishna declares, God condemned our ancestors to die in the wilderness, the Babylonians razed the First Temple and the Romans the Second, the Romans defeated Bar Kochba at Betar and plowed the city of Jerusalem under (Taanit 4:6). Chronological precision is not the intent of this mishna, but rather a desire to prevent the calendar from being overrun by memorials of national disaster. To cluster their remembrance in a single day would keep the calendar from becoming utterly lugubrious.
In consequence, Tisha b'Av, freighted with so much history (and more to come), surpassed the other three ancient fast days associated with historical events (the 17th of Tammuz, 3rd of Tishrei and 10th of Tevet) in significance. The Talmud even contemplated their impermanence. In time of real peace, they would be dropped; in the absence of war, people could chose whether or not to observe them.
But Tisha b'Av, precisely because of its rich historical resonance, would remain inviolable as a generic day of reflection on the fate of the nation (B.T. Rosh Hashana 18b). And it is for this reason that the Scroll of Lamentations (megillat Eikha), recalling the anguish of the First Temple's destruction, is read but once, in the evening. At the morning service the liturgy for the day consists of an anthology of dirges bewailing the horror of later calamities. Contemporary Jews have yet to appreciate the wisdom and power of a single, intense fast day memorializing the totality of Jewish suffering.
Shabbat Shalom and an easy fast,