“Isaiah’s Message to Contemporary Jews”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The weekly Torah portion of Devarim is always read on the week that precedes the fast of Tisha b’Av. (This year, the observance of Tisha b’Av starts on Wednesday night, August 2nd and continues through Thursday night, August 3rd.) The Shabbat that precedes Tisha b’Av is known as Shabbat Chazon, which literally means the “Sabbath of the Vision.” The name derives from the opening words of the weekly Haftarah (the prophetic message that parallels the weekly Torah portion) “Chazon Yeshayahu,” meaning the vision of Isaiah.

This Haftarah, which comes from Isaiah chapter 1, is the last of the three prophetic messages, known as “Shalosh D’poo’rah’nee’tah,” that precede Tisha b’Av and predict the destruction of the First Temple.

In the Haftarah, the prophet Isaiah deeply laments the backsliding of the Jewish people and questions how a nation that comes from such righteous origins could possibly go so wrong. How could it be, the prophet asks, that after so many admonitions and punishments, the message of G-d is still not heard and observed? With all the profound suffering that has been visited upon the Jewish people, is it possible that they have no inclination to repent?

In one of the central charges against the Jewish people, the prophet painfully condemns the Jewish people for the lack of sincerity in their religious worship.

Asking rhetorically, the prophet raises the question (Isaiah 1:11): “Lah’mah lee ro ziv’chay’chem yo’mar Hashem? Sah’vah’tee o’loat ay’leem v’chay’lev m’ree’eem,” Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? asks G-d. I am satiated with your burnt offerings of rams and the fats of choicest animals. The blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats, I do not desire!

The prophet goes on to ask: When you come to appear before Me [in My Temple]–who sought this from your hand to trample My courtyards? Bring no more vain meal offerings–incense of abomination are they unto Me; as for new moons and Sabbaths and the calling of convocations, I cannot abide iniquity along with assemblage. Your new moons and your appointed festivals, My soul abhors; they have become a burden upon Me [that] I am weary of bearing. And when you spread your hands out [in prayer], I will hide My eyes from you; even if you were to increase prayer, I do not hear, since your hands are full of blood.

There is little doubt that these resounding words of Isaiah represent a most forceful indictment of the Jewish people for failing to perform rituals with feeling or sincerity. Unfortunately, this criticism is appropriate not only for those Jews who lived in First Temple times, but may also be legitimately leveled at Jews in every era and in every generation.

Has there ever been a time in Jewish history where we have not encountered so-called “religious Jews” who behave improperly? There are those who eat strictly kosher food and wrap themselves in tallit and tefillin, but do not hesitate to cheat in business. Others pray with great passion, but leave much to be desired in their inter-human relationships.

If the performance of mitzvot is supposed to purify the souls of those who practice the mitzvot, how is it that there are more than a few so-called observant Jews who are immoral and insensitive?

The story is told of the schoolyard athlete who was determined to be the next Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player in the world. With abundant talent and ability he started practicing his basketball skills on the asphalt courts of New York. Perfecting his shots, his accuracy improved steadily:.. 50%.. 60%.. 70%.. 80%.. of his shots were on the mark, and swished into the basket. With such accuracy, he figured that he was now ready to play “big time.”

Since he had never played a real “full-court” game before and was not familiar with the rules of the game, he didn’t realize that the object of the game was to score points only for his own team. Whenever he saw a basket he threw the ball, scoring not only for his own team but for the opposing team as well.

So it is with the so-called “Orthoprax” Jews who practice traditional Judaism, but have no idea what the object of those ritual practices are meant to be. These Jews wrap themselves in talit and teffillin and eat only glatt-glatt kosher, but are dishonest in business because they fail to realize that, according to the “rules of the game,” mitzvot are supposed lead one to “score points” for G-d.

Every mitzvah has a purpose. Every mitzvah is meant to refine the human soul. Every mitzvah is designed to render the practitioner more sensitive, kinder, more giving. But if we mindlessly shoot every time we see a basket, we invariably wind up scoring for the opposite team.

There is no more timely message for this period of the Jewish calendar and the Tisha b’Av observance than this very message of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 1:16: “Rah’cha’tzoo hee’za’koo, ha’see’roo ro’ah ma’ah’l’lay’chem mee’neh’ged ay’nai,” Wash yourselves, purify yourselves, remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes; desist from doing evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the victim, do justice for the orphan, take up the cause of the widow.

The week of Tishah B’Av is a most propitious time for Jews to work on their ritual mitzvot, to explore their underlying logic and meanings, so that we may perform them more wholeheartedly and more effectively.

May the observance of Tisha b’Av 5766 be the last Tisha b’Av that we need observe. May we soon see the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which we can hasten by striving to improve our behavior and correct our own improper intentions when we perform mitzvot.

May you be blessed.