“Judging Our People Favorably”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Devarim, is always read prior to Tisha b’Av, the fast of the Ninth of Av (observed on Wednesday night, July 17th and Thursday, July 18, 2002), which commemorates the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem. The parallel prophetic reading, the Haftarah, is from the book of Isaiah 1:1-27. The Haftarah opens with the words, “Chazon Yeshayahu, the vision of Isaiah, and hence the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av is known as Shabbat Chazon, alluding to the vision of Isaiah in which he profoundly laments over the underlying causes of the destruction.

The prophecy of Isaiah is a stirring and heart-rending prophecy. The prophet calls the heavens and earth to witness the recalcitrance of the Jewish people. Even the ox, says the prophet, knows his owner, and the donkey knows the source of his nourishment, but my people, Israel, says G-d, do not know Me, they make no attempt to understand Me. Speaking in the name of G-d, Isaiah says to the people of Israel: As a result of your evil deeds, you’ve been beaten so brutally that there is no place on your body that is without wounds. Your land lies desolate; your cities are burnt. Strangers inhabit your land and eat the produce thereof.

Isaiah adjures the Jewish people to relate to G-d with sincerity. He renounces the numerous sacrifices that the Jewish people bring in the temple. “Who asked you to come to my temple to trample my courtyards?” Your sacrifices are worthless; they are abominations, because they are brought without sincerity. When you spread your hands in prayer, I will not listen to you because your hands are full with blood. And finally, pleads the prophet, (Isaiah 1:16) “Rah’cha’tzu hee’zah’ku, ha’see’ru ro’ah ma’ah’l’lay’chem mee’neged ay’nay, chid’lu ha’ray’ah.” Wash yourselves, purify yourselves, remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes, desist from doing wrong. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the victim, do justice for the orphan, take up the cause of the widow.

These powerful words resound today with surprising relevance, as if they were pronounced only yesterday!

Despite the searing words of the prophet, Isaiah forces himself to conclude his prophecy on a positive and optimistic note. If only the people turn back to G-d, says Isaiah, blessing and goodness could be theirs. G-d will avenge his enemies, He will help cleanse the Jewish people and will return the judges and counselors as of yore. Jerusalem shall be called the “City of Righteousness,” the “Faithful City.” The prophet closes with a ringing pronouncement, Isaiah 1:27: “Zion b’mishpat tee’pah’deh, v’shah’veh’ha bitz’dah’kah.” Zion shall be redeemed with justice and her returnees with righteousness.

These immortal words of Isaiah are a very powerful lesson indeed, a lesson that in itself would certainly be sufficient. And yet, there is an additional lesson to be gleaned from within Isaiah’s words.

The famed Chassidic leader, Reb Levi Ytzchak of Berdichev, the Ohev Yisrael (c.1740-1810), was known to love every Jewish person and would never allow a negative word about another Jew to pass through his lips. Once Reb Levi Yitzchak was confronted by skeptics who demanded: “Why are you so obsessed with never speaking evil of the Jewish people? After all, G-d himself, in the prophecy of Isaiah 1 speaks against His people. Recall please the verse in Isaiah 1:2: “Ba’nim gee’dal’tee v’ro’mam’tee, v’haym posh’uh bee.” I have raised children and exalted them, but they have rebelled against me. If G-d speaks against His people, why can’t you?

Reb Levi Yitzchak looked lovingly at his questioners and, with a twinkle in his eye, responded: “You misread the verse. The verse is really a question. It should read, ‘I have raised children and exalted them, and they have rebelled against me?’ Ha’yee’tah’chayn? Is it possible? Of course not!”

A long stretch of the imagination is required to interpret this verse favorably as does Reb Levi Yitzchak. And yet, he was determined to find the justification for the Jewish people, who surely did not merit favorable judgment.

Contemporary Jews today face a similar challenge in these times of terror and mourning. Our people are in distress. They are confronted with uncommon challenges. And although there is much about our people that is deserving of criticism, we need to find reason, particularly during these times, to judge our brothers and our sisters favorably.

Given the life and death issues that the people of Israel now live with daily, it is a great source of pride that, despite the constant savagery, Israelis are for the most part maintaining their equanimity. In face of such brazen evil, would any other nation have such self-control as do the citizens of Israel? While there have been a small number of citizens of Israel who have tried to take the law into their own hands and wreak vengeance upon the Arab population, the number of these incidents has been unusually small. Of course, let us hope they do not increase.

As the fast of Tisha b’Av draws near, let us reiterate the prophet Isaiah’s final words and pray: “May Zion be redeemed with justice and her returnees with righteousness.”

Have a meaningful fast.

May you be blessed.