Mordechai Silverstein

It is Not Just About Despair (Isaiah 1:1-27)

The opening word of this week’s haftarah – “Hazon ” means “vision”. This word lends its name to this special Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, the day of national mourning over the destruction of the First and Second Temples. What about this word and what about the opening prophecy of the book of Isaiah make it appropriate for this Shabbat? One might think it is because it is among the harshest prophecies found in the Tanach. God admonishes Israel for its wayward behavior with biting words like: “I reared children and brought them up and they have rebelled against Me.” (1:2). This somber message creates a mood of despair and national introspection which seems appropriate to this season.

Rabbi Shalom Noach Barazovski (20th century Israel), the Slonimer Rebbe, best known for his drashot – Netivot Shalom, challenges this mentality. He likens sadness (etzev in Hebrew) with one of the Hebrew words for idolatry (atzav) and sees this focus on mourning as antithetical to the spirit of Judaism. Further, he asks an intriguing question, one which seems surprising for a pious Hasidic rebbe: Why should we mourn and fast over what was and is no longer and what are we to make of this tragic day and somber period? He reckons that we mourn not over the past but, rather over the current situation, namely, that the Temple is not rebuilt and Israel is not properly restored because of our sinful behavior. In other words, the past is relevant as a representation of our present situation. This answer is not unlike the approach taken by some modern liberal religious Zionists who see in Israel’s social failings a relevant reason to take Tisha b’Av seriously.

In itself, this still might be considered a reason for despair. For Barazovski, though, the message of this Shabbat is not in Isaiah’s frightening prophecy. Rather, he sees it as ultimately redemptive. Its “hazon” or vision reminds us that the children of Israel are God’s children whom God will never abandon even when He is deeply disappointed at their failings. As Israel’s parent, there is always room for the possibility of reconciliation. This particular Shabbat directs Israel’s thoughts and behavior to the message that the “Divine light”, though diminished with the destruction of the Temples can be restored and Israel can be reconciled with God. With a bit of effort, it is possible for rejoicing to come forth out of our mourning and from the darkness, light.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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