Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

That which is legal is not always right (Isaiah 1:1-27)

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hazon, named for the first word of this week’s special haftarah for the Shabbat preceding Tisha b’Av. It is a harsh prophecy, chastising the people for their sinful behavior. The sins noted are, by and large, not sins directed against God, but rather wrongs committed between people. The people are corrupt. Their leaders are corrupt and so is the nation as a whole: “The princes are rebellious and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes and followers after rewards. They judge not the fatherless nor does the cause of the widow come to them.” (1:23)

Isaiah did not mince words. His harshest characterizations are intended to jar the people from their complacency: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah.” (1:10) Rabbi Asher Weiss, the renowned Jerusalem authority, weighs in on the intensity of this critique, in light of a teaching by Rabbi Aryeh Leib HaCohen Heller, author of the Shev Shmatata, an important 19th century halachic treatise, who asked: “What distinguishes between the sins of Sodom and the horrible rape murder of the concubine at Gibeah (See Judges 19)? Why did the sins of Sodom warrant total obliteration while the horrible sin of the Benjaminite citizens of Gibeah, was punished with only war and blight, allowing the possibility of living another day?”

Heller explained that what made Sodom’s sins more consequential was the fact that they were legally mandated, giving the people justification for sinning. The sins of the people of Gibeah, heinous though they were, were against the law. The people knew that what they were doing was wrong and against the laws and mores of their society. For the people of Sodom, there was no legal restraint and societal way of rectifying the communal behavior because in the eyes of the law, what they were doing was totally legitimate. In Gibeah, the sinful behavior of its citizens was recognizable and not warranted by society. This created the potential for the society to mend its evil ways. (Minhat Asher Sihot al Hamoadim 2, pp. 178-80)

People need to know how easy it is to create a “Sodom” and to justify morally wrong behavior legally. Just because something is “legal” does not make it right. The sages positioned this haftarah before Tisha b’Av to remind us that societies fall over such things. This advice should be taken very seriously.

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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