At the beginning of this week’s special haftarah for the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, Isaiah describes the horrific results of an attack by the Assyrians on Judea several generations before the destruction of the Temple. Isaiah attributed this tragic near total destruction of the city to the people’s moral and religious disloyalty to God and, as a consequence, he thanked God for at least salvaging a vestige of the people to recoup from its losses. Still, he expressed himself in cynical terms, chiding his listeners with a troublesome comparison: “Had not the Lord of Hosts left us some survivors, we would be like Sodom, another Gomorrah.” (1:9)
While Isaiah intended to note that the nation had been spared total destruction, unlike Sodom and Gomorrah, in the next verse, he makes a connection between Judean behavior and that of these cities by comparing Judea’s leaders to those of these cursed cities: “Hear the word of the Lord, you chieftains of Sodom; give ear to our God’s instruction, you folk of Gomorrah!” (1:10)
The sages examine the propriety of making such a analogy even when seemingly appropriate in the following Talmudic discussion over a person’s prayer obligations when they coincide with a funeral:
The sages teach [in a Baraita]: Those who are occupied with the funeral speeches (hespedim), if the dead body is still before them, the listeners should slip out one by one and recite the Shema’; if the body is not before them, they sit and recite it, but he [the mourner (ha’onan)] sits silent; they stand and pray the tefillah (Shemoneh Esrei) and the mourner stands up and accepts God’s judgment (but does not prayer the Amidah since he is an onan) and says: ‘Master of the Universe, I have sinned much before You and You have not punished me one thousandth part. May it be Your will, O Lord our God, to close up our breaches and the breaches of all Your people, the house of Israel, in mercy!’ Abaye (a Babylonian sages from the period of the Talmud) objected: A man should not speak so, since Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, and so it was taught in the name of Rabbi Yossi: A man should never speak in such a way as to give an opening to Satan (al tiftah peh l’Satan). And Rav Yosef said: What text proves this? Because it says: “We were like Sodom”. What did the prophet reply to them? “Hear the word of the Lord, you chieftains of Sodom.” (Berachot 19a)
Abaye rejected the idea that the mourner should thank God for not sending excessive tragedy, lest it open the door for more tragedy. Rav Yosef justifies Abaye’s opinion by quoting the above verses from Isaiah, noting that the very notion of comparing Judah to Sodom, inexorably led the Divine to treat the nation as if it really was like Sodom.
Moderns shy from the notion that a person might bring upon him or herself judgment by verbal suggestion. Perhaps this explains why Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, gave Rabbi Yossi’s formulation a psycho-religious interpretation. He asserts that if a person makes a wrong assessment of how God metes out judgment, assuming that God is acting with mercy where judgment was appropriate, it has the potential to skew that person’s moral judgment, making proper behavior more difficult (See Ein Ayah Berachot 19a p. 99), namely, if a person assumes that their behavior was bad, but seemingly “got off easy”, that person might assuming that he/she can get away with even worse behavior.
As we approach Tisha B’Av, this is an important message. We must be able to properly assess who we are as individuals and as a people in order to be able to adjust our behavior appropriately. Only by doing so, will the redemption we so sorely yearn for be possible.