Rabbi Reflection: Envisioning the Future after a Time of Devastation

By Rabbi Neal I. Borovitz

While all of us here in the Berkshires are enjoying a summer of renewal after three years of limited cultural and social activities, our Jewish calendar reminds us this month of the challenging responsibility and opportunity we, as a community and each of us as individuals have to respond to disaster through communal renewal.

Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of vision, falls this year on July 22. The name comes from the opening word of the Book of Isaiah which the Haftarah is assigned to be read on the Sabbath which precedes Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

The vision of Isaiah is of more than historic relevance. The prophet's words were written sometime after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, in 721 B.C.E., 140 years before the first destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. In the Book of Isaiah 1:2-9, the prophet appeals to the Jews who have survived the destruction and devastation of Israel to learn from the mistakes of others. In verses 18-25, the prophet warns the Jewish community of his day, (and through our annual reading of this chapter, of our day, as well,) of the death and destruction, the alienation and isolation which awaits them, (and us) if they do not choose to honor their obligations and responsibilities to God as conveyed to them in Torah.

In between these passages, in verses 10-17, Isaiah outlines for his contemporaries his suggestions as to the spiritual remedies necessary for the restoration of the covenantal partnership agreement between God and the Jewish people. 

Rabbi Gunther Plait in his haftarah commentary on these eight verses writes: “This ringing denunciation of hypocritical religion has sometimes been read as if Isaiah denounced ritual in general...But this is a complete misreading of the prophet’s message. Isaiah’s message is: If sacrifice or prayer are not accompanied by righteous living and pure intent, they are abhorrent to God... Isaiah's condemnation is not of ritual per se, but rather, of rituals that are not accompanied by righteous living.”

Rabbi Plaut backs up his comment with a story from Numbers Rabba 25:21: “A pagan asked Rabbi Akiba: Why do you celebrate your festivals? Did not the Holy One through Isaiah say to you: ‘I hate your festivals?’ Rabbi Akiva answered: ‘If God had said, I hate My new moons and My festivals, you might have had a point. But God said, ‘your new moons and your festivals – yours, not MINE!” 

It is clear from the context of the Midrash, as well as the Isaiah text itself, that the critique of Jewish observance by both the prophet of the 8th century B.C.E. and Rabbi Akiva (who lived in the 2nd century C.E.) did not concern ritual observances of the festivals. Rather, the basis of their critique was the failure of Jews to carry away from their rituals the ethical teachings and moral imperatives of Judaism and to incorporate them into their everyday life.  

On this Shabbat Chazon, this Sabbath of vision, we are not only challenged by the vision of Isaiah but also by our beginning again to study the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. Written in the literary form of a series of sermons by Moses to Israel, Deuteronomy was an attempt by a 7th century B.C. E., generation of Jewish teachers to inspire their fellow Jews to, in the words we learn in Parshat Vaetchanan “ to serve God with all their heart, soul and might.” I hear in these words that we recite as part of the Shema every morning and evening a command to direct my spiritual, cognitive, and physical power to the service of God by working in community to repair the tears in the fabric of human society and to be better custodians of the planet earth over which we were given dominion in the opening chapters of Genesis.

The Book of Deuteronomy exhorts the reader to serve God by creating a just and compassionate society. By having Moses remind us, time and again, that since God, our creator and our liberator, is both just and compassionate, we have the ability and the responsibility to treat others with whom we interact with justice and compassion. It is our repayment to God for the gift of life. 

In the opening chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses learns from God that he will not live to enter Eretz Yisrael. After all Moses has been through as a servant of God and a communal leader of a very “stiff-necked people,” why Moses doesn’t just quit? Rather, while he pleads with God for a reprieve, he also continues to exhort his congregation to remember and learn from the mistakes of the past as they embark upon a new era in Jewish history. Deuteronomy is a series of passionate and eloquent homiletic pleas to the People of Israel to choose life over death and blessing over curse.

Tisha B’Av is a day of infamy in Jewish history. On July 27th, we lament the disasters that have befallen our people on this date. Jeremiah’s laments in the Book of Lamentations are intended to make us recognize that we ourselves are not blameless victims. Isaiah teaches us that the destruction of Israel in the 8th h century B.C.E. was the result of Jews engaging in meaningless worship devoid of ethical and moral content. The Talmud teaches us that the destruction of the Second Temple was a result of Sinat Chinam, the senseless hatred of Jews for our fellow Jews. The 20th and 21st centuries have proved that when good people stand by and do nothing, the moral vacuum they create is immediately filled with evil. Conversely, when good people join to realize the visions of the prophets, the dreams of Deuteronomy can be realized.

Other questions that the words of Isaiah raise for me are: Can we bring under control the plague of Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred? Will we choose to learn from the lesson Cain and Abel and love each other with our heart soul and might, even when we disagree? Will we choose to respect the rights of “others” in our world who differ with us on issues confronting our community, our nation, and our world? Or will we “good people” allow the plague of Sinat Chinam, which our Talmudic sages claimed was the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem 1950 years ago, as manifest in the bitter divisiveness permeating politics around the world (including here in America and in Israel) lead us to disaster?

To me, the challenging message of Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B ‘Av is: We all share responsibility for the evil in this world. Shabbat Chazon marks the beginning of the countdown to a new year. During the weeks until Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we each have the opportunity to begin the process of teshuva, of change, by which we can repair ourselves, our community, and the world. 

In my own paraphrase and application of the challenging words of Rabbi Tarfon found in Pirkei Avot 2:15&16: When I look at the world both in terms of Human Society and Planet Earth, I see that the time is short. There is much work to be done to bring about the redemption of the world by meeting head on the ecological and societal challenges we face. Though we most likely will not personally live to see its completion we, like Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, are not free to avoid our responsibility to do our share and pass along a better world to the next generations. May it be our will to be God’s partner in this awesome task of repairing the Moral and Spiritual infrastructure of our world? 

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, a participating member of Berkshire Minyan in Great Barrington, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, NJ. He is married to Ann Appelbaum. He is past chair of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Northern New Jersey, and Past National Vice Chair of Jewish Council for Public Affairs.