I sat down yesterday morning to write a short d’var Torah about this week’s haftarah for last night, Friday night. This is my custom. I do speak multiple times each Shabbat. Those who come on Friday night know that I try to give something different and new on Shabbat morning. I don’t believe Jews should get together in shul without there being words of Torah. I thought I would speak about the meaning of Shabbat Chazon. I believe it is noteworthy that in the midst of this serious period on the Jewish calendar, a time of serious reflection and sadness, we have a haftarah that provides hope. The mood of these days and then a sense of hope arise out of a despairing sequence of prophecies that come from the prophet Isaiah.
I want to talk about prophets and prophecy.
As opposed to common understanding, prophecy in Judaism is not about seeing the future. Prophecy is about understanding the implications that our behaviors have on the future. The prophets of Israel were spokespeople who brought moral rebuke to the leaders and to society. The words of the prophets of Israel are enshrined in western civilization. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall man learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4) Let justice flow like a stream. (Amos 5:24)
When nations were at war with each other the prophets dreamed of the day when people treated each other like brothers and sisters. These are words that have outlived the leadership of their time. These words have outlived nations. These are the words of our people.
When I think about it, I believe that these are the words that attracted you and me to the depth of our religious tradition, because these are words that define the values which underlie our morality. These are words of inspiration. These are the words that tell us who we fundamentally are or who we should be.
They speak a language of aspiration, of peace, of justice; a language that protests poverty and inequality; a language that protests corruption.
And although the prophets had no power, their words continue to hold sway. Think about this: we remember the names of the prophets; we do not remember the names of most of those who were kings when the prophets spoke.
You might say that on the Jewish calendar this period of time and the time around the High Holy Days is “prophet time.”
This week was preceded by Shabbatot with prophecies from Jeremiah about the destruction of the Jewish people. Being a prophet was not easy. Jeremiah, like the prophet before him and the prophets who came after him, did not want to serve in that role. It automatically made you unpopular. You were speaking against the base! In fact, they tried their best to run from the position. They did not get paid. Prophets were not rewarded in their own life. Often they died derided and destitute.
Jeremiah suffered terribly. He was arrested and he was jailed. He was flogged. He was abused. He was tried, and then he escaped. But his words live on. The words of the prophets live on because these are words which speak truth to power.
Prophets were social critics and they placed themselves at risk. Yet prophets remain a preeminent part of our tradition. In fact, many of us define ourselves by the words of our prophets — not all, for some ritual behaviors are much more important than the value expressed through the prophet.
Over the last few weeks, we have read of Jeremiah warning the people about how their behaviors will cause destruction and the exile of the people. He said they were not living honestly according to the covenant which was made with God. He said religion has been corrupted, ritual become inauthentic. And, he said we are going to pay a price. Now, this week comes the prophet, Isaiah. He has a vision, which is why this week is referred to as Shabbat Chazon.
Isaiah continues the warnings of Jeremiah. He critiques leadership and expresses deep dismay about religious leaders ALSO. We may be familiar with Isaiah’s vision because of our iniquities — because of the poverty around him and the corruption of power by the wealthy and the powerful. He speaks about the impact of injustice and what will become of an unjust society. We know what happened. Our people were almost annihilated. Our city, Jerusalem, was destroyed, left in ruins, and our people were sent into exile.
But Isaiah also does something else, because he understands that it was not the end of time or history, and so he preaches a message of hope. Like Jeremiah, Isaiah’s message is that there will be something for our people to learn and grow from, and even celebrate, after the destruction. That brings an element critical to our prophets. We can despair about the bad things can happen to us in this world, but we have the capacity to re-emerge. We can be resilient. We can once again cause a light to shine. Because the prophet understood that there is a dimension in human history that has to do with human behavior and free will. What we do makes a difference. We are blessed by a natural world that can support our lives if we treat it well, but we have to make the right decisions. After we paid our dues for false alliances; for disregard of the widow, the orphan, the needy and the poor; for injustice. After we suffered because of our behaviors and after we were sent into exile because of our behaviors, we were promised that we can return. And we did return. There is a process of learning and the possibility of teshuva. And that’s what we’ll hear in the haftorot after Tisha B’Av.
So this Shabbat — this Shabbat before Tisha B’Av — a time when we look at the destruction and we commemorate loss and tragedy — this Shabbat also contains promise and hope in its message.
Leading up to this day throughout the last weeks I have found the words of the prophets ring so true. I realize that there is a reason that we keep reading them. It’s not just interesting literature. It’s not just a description of what happened in history. It is a warning for all times. There’s a reason why we keep reading these words. There’s a reason why Jeremiah and Isaiah stay alive in our consciousness. It’s because corruption in the highest places is still our reality. It’s because we continue to neglect the poor and the downtrodden — those who suffer from societal injustices and those who suffer from other forms of social violence. It is because we continue to show hostility to strangers — those at our borders — just as the prophet warned us. It is because of false alliances that are made with foreign rulers. Can the words of the prophet ring any truer than they do on this date?
And it’s because of the corruption of religious leaders. We see the corruption of religion and religious leaders around us in this country. And it is awful to see, but we also know it is a feature of Israeli society on this very day. We know that one of our own rabbis — a colleague of mine and Conservative rabbi — was detained by authorities this past week, in Haifa, in the middle of the night. The reason given was that he performed “illegal marriages.” Like everything else with power, religion can corrupt!
This week I was in conversation with a dear friend. She asked me how I was and I told her I am so deeply concerned about the world around us. She told me she understood. She is older than me and said that she has seen better days in the past; that I should know there will be again; and, that these days also will pass. Yesterday she emailed me again. It was early in the morning. She wrote, “The sun rose today. I send my love.”
My grandmother would end conversations with the following simple words: “Let us hope.” We tend to feel rather bleak. We tend to feel rather powerless in the face of the great powers which confront us. But like Jeremiah and like Isaiah, we have words to inspire us; and, like my grandmother who escaped the Nazis, we must continue to hope. And, we must use every tool available to us to make the world a more peaceful, a more equal, a more just, a kinder and more loving place.