Shabbat Chazon: Isaiah on the Mesaba Ship

One of the least known yet most important details related to the Titanic ship sinking in April of 1912 is the Maseba ship’s warnings. On the morning of April 14th 1912, the Titanic first received warnings from the Athenia ship, followed by the SS Amerika, followed by the SS Californian. Finally, the Mesaba ship sent a strong warning to the Titanic radio room; “Saw much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs. Also field ice”, was the message. The message never left the radio room. At 22: 30, a final warning was sent by the SS Californian, a message received and shunned. It is hard to imagine what those who sent the warnings felt like after finding out the tragic end of the Titanic, a feeling perhaps shared by the prophet Isaiah, the most likely not.

On the Shabbat before Tisha Be’Av, also known as Shabbat Chazon, we read the riveting words of Isaiah, warning the Jews of the impending doom about to befall them if they do not heed the word of God and repent from their sinful ways. The Shabbat—Chazon—is named for Isaiah’s vision (Chazon in Hebrew means vision). These words, opening the book of Isaiah, contain some of his most famous ones:

“The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, [and] Hezekiah, kings of Judah…Children I have raised and exalted, yet they have rebelled against Me. An ox knows his owner and a donkey his master’s crib; Israel does not know, my people does not consider.”

Isaiah spares no harsh words towards his people, letting them know their behavior is an utmost violation of God’s covenant with them.

“Hear the word of the Lord, O rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, O people of Gomorrah! Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me?! says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle and the blood of bulls and sheep and goats I do not want.”

If there is any form of direct and sharp criticism, this is it.

In some ways, this reminds us of the many ships that sent the Titanic a warning as it blazed its path towards a deadly collision with an iceberg. In this sense, Isaiah finds himself in the same category of those seamen, as Harry Markopolos, who warned the SEC about Bernie Madoff, as Charles Colchester, who warned Abraham Lincoln his life was in danger, rocket engineer Roger Boisjoly who warned NASA the Challenger space shuttle would fail.

Yet Isaiah does not leave it to merely identifying the severe problems, he speaks clearly about the exact consequences. Two hundred and fifty years before the destruction of the Temple, he says:

“Your land is desolate; your cities burnt with fire. Your land-in your presence, strangers devour it, and it is desolate as that turned over to strangers. And the daughter of Zion shall be left like a hut in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.”

Outlining the details of the consequences of not changing course while giving a warning is uncommon, yet it has been done before. What most distinguishes Isaiah, though, is his “Chazon—vision.”

Many people in history had criticisms, many warned of dark consequences, few gave a visionary alternative for going forward. Isiah is one of those who had the “Chazon”, who had the vision.

“Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow…And I will restore your judges as at first and your counselors as in the beginning; afterward, you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City. Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitent through righteousness.”

While not heeded to for centuries, these words went on to burn in the hearts of the Jewish people for thousands of years. Inspiring justice, righteousness, fighting for the weak and poor among us, and yearning for Zion, Isaiah’s words became part of the Jewish people’s DNA. That is the lesson and legacy of Shabbat Chazon. As we approach Tisha Be’Av, we must remember there are those who warn us.

The lesson and legacy of Shabbat Chazon prepares us best for Tisha Be’Av. Yes, we will be heartbroken for the Beit Hamikdash, yes we will mourn the unbearable losses of our history, yes we will think of all the spiritual deprivation we experience because of our distance from Hashem, but all that must have a vision. We must remember that we are not marking the end of a path but rather the need to take a different path. Like the Maseba ship warning the Titanic to change course, Isaiah tells us we must change course. As we observe Shabbat Chazon, let us remember the paths we must not take, but also those which we ought to take.

May we find the right way and be blessed with Isaiah’s visionary prophecy: “I will restore your judges as at first and your counselors as in the beginning; afterward you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City. Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitent through righteousness.”

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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