A Society Sickened by its Rulers
The Shabbat before Tisha B'Av calls our attention to the evils of society that God urges us to address. In particular, the prophet Isaiah inveighs against corrupt leadership, which leads the people astray and which the governed have an obligation to correct.
A Vision of Justice
Today is Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision. It is the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av, our national day of memory and mourning that recalls the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the myriad atrocities and tragedies perpetrated against our people for the past 2500 years.
The Sabbath of Vision is so named because of the haftarah portion we read this week, which is from the beginning of the Book of Isaiah.
חֲזוֹן יְשַׁעְיָהוּ בֶן-אָמוֹץ אֲשֶׁר חָזָה עַל-יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָם
The vision of Isaiah, son of Amotz,
who was a seer over Judah and Jerusalem…
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth,
For the Eternal has spoken:
“Children I have reared and brought up--
And they have rebelled against Me!” (Isa. 1:1-2).
Isaiah opens his prophecy with condemnation of a land ruled by iniquity, a society addicted to wealth and abusive to the weak. They are spiritually hollow and morally corrupt, mistaking ritual pageantry for genuine piety.
Ah, sinful nation!—he writes--
People laden with iniquity!
Brood of evildoers!
They have forsaken the Eternal,
Spurned the Holy One of Israel,
Turned their backs [on their God] (Isa. 1:4).
Having selected this prophecy for the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av, the sages of our tradition have taught us that such outrageous moral failure saps Israel of its dignity and erodes God’s trust in us as the Chosen People. We bring calamity upon ourselves when we permit injustice to take root in the soul of our nation.
=Isaiah’s society is sick, consumed from within by its own ravenous hunger. And yet, he insists, disaster can be averted; redemption is within our grasp. In these few opening verses of Isaiah, the message of Judaic prophecy takes root. Reverberating for centuries within the Hebrew Bible and for millennia after its close is the inescapable charge of Judaism’s most sacred moral call:
Isa. 1:16Cease to do evil;
17Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice;
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.
This justice, the tzedek of Isaiah and the prophets who follow him, is one of the most profound and counter-cultural ideas of the Hebrew Bible, defined first and foremost as a system designed to protect the weak. In Judaism, justice refers not merely to fairness, to a program of universal access and equal opportunity. Rather, Isaiah enjoins us to seek out the vulnerable and the disadvantaged and to make their cause our own. A nation that ignores those on the margins has no center, and without integrity, it cannot endure.
And so we must, each of us singly and all of us together, commit to opening our eyes, inclining our ears, and softening our hearts toward those who are in need. Isaiah is far less concerned with who pays a so-called “fair share” than that everyone have a share at all. The God of Israel defends the poor and loves the stranger, and we are to follow suit. As we shall be reminded on Yom Kippur:
Isa. 58:6…this is the fast [God] desires:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
7It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe them,
And not to ignore your own flesh.
When we take this message into our hearts and bring it with our actions into the world, then we give rise to the comfort and peace God intends for all human beings.
Isa. 1:18“Come, let us reach an understanding,
—says the Eternal.
“Be your sins like crimson,
They can turn snow-white;
Be they red as dyed wool,
They can become like fleece.
19If, then, you agree and give heed,
You will eat the good things of the earth.”
Through our actions, we can bring about peace. Through repentance, we can restore the virtuous heart of our society.
The vision of Isaiah addresses each of us individually, but it speaks with particular force to society’s leaders.
On Shabbat Chazon, we read Parashat Devarim, the first Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy. In it, Moses addresses the Children of Israel as they stand on the border of the Promised Land. He reminds them of their long journey and the ultimate goal of their wanderings: a homeland verdant and abundant, destined to be a nation of righteousness and peace.
To help achieve that dream, Moses appoints leaders to care for the population. Judges, magistrates, and officers receive a special charge: “Hear out your brethren, and decide justly between any person and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out great and small alike” (Deut. 1:16-17). These leaders are expected to be wise, efficient, and upright; to respect God and to honor the truth; and perhaps most importantly of all, as our tradition teaches us, to “save the oppressed from the head of the oppressor.”
And yet, in the age of Isaiah, these very officials are the ones who have failed the most. No amount of goodwill among the common people can overcome a self-serving ruling class. Isaiah arraigns the people:
Isa. 1:23Your rulers are rogues
And cronies of thieves,
Every one avid for presents
And greedy for gifts;
They do not judge the case of the orphan,
And the widow’s cause never reaches them.
As Moses feared and as Isaiah witnessed, the depravity of society so often emanates from its leaders, who pave the way for aristocrats and commoners alike to tread on the poor and to take advantage of the needy. Isaiah, who spoke the inconvenient truth to four separate kings of Israel, knows full well the power and consequent responsibility entrusted to the privileged elite. He inveighs against religious and secular leaders alike, whose decisions not only reflect but also create the moral character of society.
And at the same time, just as leaders are responsible for the general population, so is the general population responsible for its leaders. We read in the book of Jeremiah, “As we have done, [so have] our parents, our sovereigns, and our rulers” (Jer. 44:17). Average citizens cannot in good conscience outsource responsibility for decision-making only to those who are already in power; even in the ancient world, rulers responded to the needs and desires of the governed, who were in turn accountable for the actions of their leaders. The prophets of ancient Israel insist that the people call their leaders to task, demanding of them the highest standards of ethics and commitments to justice.
As we approach the solemn commemoration of Tisha B’Av, let the twofold message of Isaiah echo in our minds. The leaders of the land are crucial to our own moral flourishing, and we bear responsibility for their behaviors and decisions. Isaiah yearned for a society committed sincerely to justice, for a nation devoted to lifting up those beaten down; but such a community eluded him. With all his wisdom and even with the power of God at his back, he could not bring it to pass.
And yet, he never gave up hope that such a society could arise, that a people inspired by the spirit of holiness and drawn to the pursuit of justice could create a world in which all would be treated with dignity and love.
And so, even as Tisha B’Av looms on the horizon, Shabbat Chazon concludes with hope. God assures us that one day,
Isi. 1:26I will restore your judges as of old,
And your counselors as at the beginning.
After that you shall be called
City of Righteousness, Faithful City.
27Zion shall be redeemed with justice
And her repentant ones with righteousness.
May we merit to see this prophecy come true in our own day.
 These qualities are enumerated by Nachmanides in his commentary to Ex. 18:21:
Capable men (אַנְשֵׁי־חַיִל) = Men who are fit to lead a large number, for any gathering or assemblage is called a chayil. Now, “man of chayil” in regard to administering justice refers to someone who is wise, efficient, and upright (הֶחָכָם הַזָּרִיז הַיָּשָׁר). As well, one cannot be a “man of chayil” unless one is also one who fears God, one who is a man of truth, and one who hates money.
Men who hate money (שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע) = Men who despise monetary oppression. When they witness monetary wrongdoing and injustice, their mind cannot tolerate it. Rather, their entire desire is to “save the oppressed from the head of the oppressor.”
1/24/2023 03:01:26 pm
Thank you for writiing this
Leave a Reply.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”