Dov Lerea
Dov Lerea

A call for national Teshuvah

Parashat Devarim Shabbat Hazon

2021/5781

Haftorah: Isaiah 1:1-27

Parashat Devarim is always Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat of vision, named for Isaiah’s opening words in the Haftorah: The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, who prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the reigns of Uzziah, Yotam, Achaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. This opening already sets the stage for the fast on the 9th of Av which begins this year immediately after Shabbat and Sunday. It is Isaiah’s vision that informs the day’s theology. This period of time ben hameitzarim, from the 17th of Tammuz until the 9th of Av, reflects dimensions of mourning practices. In addition, much of the liturgical language in both Lamentations and the elegies, kinnot, evokes the same emotional impact of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the theology of 9th of Av calls for repentance more than mourning, despite the pain associated with loss.
The theology of mourning is captured, for example, in the following Talmudic story that served as a basis for the prayer recited at funerals, Tziduk haDin:
When [the Romans] captured Rabbi Hananniah ben Tradion, they sentenced him to be burned alive, together with his Sefer Torah. They told him: “You have been sentenced to death by fire with your Torah scroll.” He replied, quoting Devarim 32:4, “God, the Foundation of the world, is pure in all of God’s deeds.” Then the Romans turned to his wife and said to her, “Your husband has been condemned to the fire, and you are sentenced to die by the sword.” She quoted the Torah and said (ibid.), “God is completely trustworthy, without perversity.” The Romans then said to his daughter, “Your father is sentenced to die by fire, and your mother by the sword, and you are condemned to live as a prostitute in a brothel. The daughter quoted Scripture (Jeremiah 32:19) and said, “Great is God’s actions, majestic God’s ways, that I greet with open eyes.” (Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zara 18b)

This story underscores a normative, powerful theology of mourning. It is a belief in the absolute power and oneness of God. A person is called upon to recognize God in moments of painful loss, just as one recognizes God beneficence in moments of blessing. One is called upon to recite, Baruch dayyan haEmet in mourning, just as one is invited to recite haTov v’haMetiv when experiencing abundance. The individual acknowledges that all human experience ultimately finds its mysterious, inexplicable source, in the Creator of the universe, as painful as that recognition might be. In fact, this is designed to provide comfort and consolation over time, offering the mourner the thought that the loss was not the result of sin, but of the ways in which God has structured and ordered reality. The most radical expression of this idea permeates the Book of Job, in which Job’s associates try unsuccessfully to convince him that his suffering must be the result of sinful behavior. Job resists, and the book concludes by powerfully asserting the mysterious nature of God’s will and power.

The rabbis captured this sensibility liturgically with the opening of shacharit every day of the year. The prophet Isaiah declared of God:

יוֹצֵ֥ר אוֹר֙ וּבוֹרֵ֣א חֹ֔שֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂ֥ה שָׁל֖וֹם וּב֣וֹרֵא רָ֑ע אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה עֹשֶׂ֥ה כָל־אֵֽלֶּה׃ (ס)

I form light and create darkness, I make wholeness and create chaos– I the LORD do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)

The rabbis re-wrote this verse to open the daily morning service by euphemistically substituting the word, haKol, “everything,” for the word, haRa’, “chaos/evil.” “Everything” means, by implication, “suffering, chaos, evil.”

The days preceding the 9th of Av, as well as the day itself, form a “hollow” container constructed of the elements of mourning, but with a very different theological core. Isaiah himself, anticipating a hopeful future, used the phrase, “the mourners of Zion:” To provide for the mourners in Zion— To give them a turban instead of ashes, festive ointment instead of mourning, a garment of splendor instead of a depressed spirit. They shall be called terebinths of victory, planted by the LORD for God’s glory. (Isaiah 61:3) This phrase forms the basis of the Ashkenazic custom of offering mourners consolation during shiva by saying:

May the Omnipresent console you along with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. This is not an ancient formula. Rabbi Yaakov haLevi ben Moshe Molein, the “Maharil,” recorded the formula: May God console you amongst the mourners of Zion, and Rabbi Jacob ben Joseph Reischer wrote, in his work, Shevut Yaakov, May God console you and us amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. The Babylonian Talmud does have a similar formula, but in the context of visiting the gravely ill: Rabbi Yossi said: May the Omnipresent have compassion on you amongst the ill of Israel. (Shabbat 12b) The ancient phrase used in Sephardic tradition, May you be consoled from Heaven (ie., “by God”) is found already in the minor tractate Smachot 4:13, and codified by the Rambam (Hilchot ‘Avelut 13:1-2)

The phrase, ‘avelei Zion from Isaiah in the nachem prayer in the amidah on Tisha b’Av lends liturgical expression to the motif of mourning. Furthermore, Lamentations, Jeremiah’s eye-witness account and impressionistic reaction to the destruction of the first Temple and the exile of Jerusalem, uses the language of mourning and consolation with the repeated word of menachem, “console,” throughout. (For example, 1:2, 1:16) At the same time, the loss of the Temple is not the same as the death of a person. The death of a relative or a communal leader brings the unconsolable emotional understanding that the person can never be replaced. This fact is theologically explained as the way God has structured the universe: the gift of life is accompanied by the continuous decomposition of that life’s energy. (The Rambam treats the philosophical problem of mortality in the third section of the Moreh Nevuchim)

Many of the minhagim associated with mourning during this period leading up to 9th Av are Mikdash symbols in addition to echoing rituals of mourning. Meat and wine are both associated with the Temple service, not merely foods of pleasure.

Simcha, in this context, refers to the deep joy of sensing God’s presence in the midst of Israel. The physical building of the Temple held that presence and evoked the feeling of the divine amongst the people. The mechaber in the Shulkhan Arukh identified the diminution of pleasure with the advent of the month of Av with the joy associated with binyan, building construction. This norm transforms every act of construction into the building of a Mikdash Me’at; our homes become microcosmic Temples, our tables, altars, and our meals, sacrificial offerings bringing God’s presence into the intimacy of our homes. The custom of ceasing from meat varies. The Bavli Ta’anit records three possibilities: ceasing from the 17th of Tammuz, from rosh Chodesh Av, or only during the week of the fast. There is an opinion that records ceasing from eating meat only erev Tisha b’Av.

What begins to emerge is the centrality of Mikdash imagery and symbolism contained within a structure of mourning rituals. The question I ask us to consider is, “What exactly are we mourning? What is the meaning of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people from Jerusalem?” Since the theology underpinning the 9th of Av is not, I believe, the theology of avelut as captured by the Tziduk haDin prayer, how might we understand the message of the day?

The rabbis answered this question by selecting the haftorah from Isaiah 1:1-27.

There, the prophet tells us explicitly what we are mourning and why:

An ox knows its owner, An ass its master’s crib: Israel does not know, My people take no thought.” Ah, sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! They have forsaken the LORD, Spurned the Holy One of Israel, Turned their backs [on Him]….Hear the word of the LORD, You chieftains of Sodom; Give ear to our God’s instruction, You folk of Gomorrah! “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” Says the LORD. “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, And suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls; and I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me— Who asked that of you? Trample My courts no more; bringing oblations is futile, Incense is offensive to Me. New moon and sabbath, proclaiming of solemnities, assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide. Your new moons and fixed seasons Fill Me with loathing; They became a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime— Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings Away from My sight. Cease to do evil; Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged.

Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow. (Isaiah 1)
Of all the creatures and phenomena God created, only human beings have to learn what it means to be human. Mountains are mountainous, and trees are arboreal.

Dogs behave as canines, and cows are bovine. Only people rebel against their divine Master. How so? By believing arrogantly that their behavioristic attention to the external details of God’s demands can inoculate them against the implications of denying goodness, compassion, and kindness. Humanity seduced themselves into believing that a choreography of pious behavior will protect them from the consequences of mendacity, avarice, and cruelty. The only reason God has commanded the Jewish people to pray, keep the Sabbath, celebrate holidays, and bring offerings, is to sensitize us to our obligation to the rest of humanity through compassion, righteousness, and adherence to truth. Celebrating the Creator of humanity and living in God’s presence through the fulfillment of mitzvot are intended to stimulate our people’s constant awareness of God’s expectation that we care for and protect the world God created for us. That same God has expectations of and relationships with other nations, and they pay for the consequences of their behaviors. God informed Avraham already that that would happen to Egypt, and the Torah records God’s response to Moav, Amon, and Midian in different moments of their histories. But in our marriage with the Creator, our task is to uphold and defend the principles of justice and righteousness with compassion and love regardless of what we endure. Isaiah, in this haftorah, makes this abundantly clear.

The haftorah, therefore, conveys a theology of teshuva, not ‘avelut, mourning. What has been lost is not political sovereignty or a building and “way of life,” but rather God’s presence. The mourning on 9th of Av is a desperate response to living in a godless world. God has turned God’s back on the Jewish people because of our inadequate response to the injustices and oppressions surrounding us. God’s hester panim is the divine response to the Jewish people’s failure to transcend our own needs and desires and become stewards of human dignity and freedom. That is Isaiah’s message in advance of Tisha b’Av. That is why, for example, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, z”l, wrote that fundamentally, it is permissible to swim during the 9 days, even though swimming resembles bathing. However, “the custom is to refrain from swimming…because it is dangerous.” (Yalkut Yosef, hilchot Tisha b’Av) Swimming always involves an element of danger. It is particularly dangerous during this time, however, precisely because God is not watching us. Life in a godless world, in a world that human behavior has rendered uninhabitable by the presence of the divine Shechinah, becomes treacherous. That, I submit, is precisely the world we inhabit currently. Our world has become treacherous; our safety is fragile; humanity is living in the midst of a volatility that threatens our vulnerabilities.

The theology of 9th Av directs us to confront the implications of our own decisions, priorities and behaviors as a people and determine how they have contributed to the current existential crisis. God has expectations of us, and 9th of Av is the day to experience deep divine disappointment in humanity, and in particular, in the Jewish people. It is easier to imagine 9th b’Av as a day of symbolic mourning, than as a day of introspection, self and national-judgment, moral assessment, and a spiritual brokenness that has exiled God from us. It is more palitable to experience the 9th of Av as a day of nostalgic loss, than as an excoriating demand to repair alienation from core religious values that attach us to all of humanity.

Isaiah’s words penetrate, and the haftorah is harsh. However, the world is also harsh, and humanity is having a tough time looking at themselves and taking responsibility for current states of oppression, suffering, poverty, anger, and violence. The day is powerful, captured even by the simple word, eicha. Eicha means, “How!” and “How?” simultaneously. We turn to God while reading the account of Jeremiah and lament, “How abandoned we have become! How godless!” In the same breath we demand, while remaining in relationship with God, “How?! How could You enable these horrific acts, how could You, God, allow these acts of unspeakable pain and suffering to happen to us?” Isaiah answered: “These events would never unfold if only you modeled compassion, kindness, righteousness and justice in all of your encounters with all human beings.” May our faith and commitments make his words come true.

Rabbi Dov Lerea
9th Av 5781

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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