Shabbat Chazon is so named because of the prophecy that begins the book of Isaiah. The prophet calls us to account for our own behavior and models our responsibility to speak out against leaders who pollute society with greed. As we prepare for the mournful commemoration of Tisha B'Av, we take Isaiah's message to heart and gird ourselves for the work of teshuvah that lies ahead.
A Vision of Redemption through Righteousness
This week is Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Prophetic Vision. It falls every year on the first week we read from the book of Deuteronomy, and it immediately precedes the fast on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. Tisha B’Av, as the holiday is known, commemorates the myriad destructions and persecutions our people have faced throughout the millennia. It is observed by reading the biblical book of Lamentations, a gut-wrenching testimony of the devastation of Jerusalem.
Shabbat Chazon gets its name from the first word of the Book of Isaiah, whose prophecy serves as this week’s haftarah reading. חֲזוֹן יְשַׁעְיָהוּ בֶן-אָמוֹץ, “This is the vision of Isaiah ben Amotz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (Isa. 1:1). Isaiah’s vision is a warning to the people of Judah, a call to righteousness and repentance directed at a wicked and self-serving society. It echoes throughout Jewish history and lands on our ears today with the same clarion urgency as when it first came forth.
It calls us to mend our ways, and it ties us to the decisions of our leaders. To take Isaiah seriously is to take seriously our own role in addressing and correcting the evils of our day.
Isaiah’s age was one of profound danger. The Kingdom of Israel, stable and strong for nearly 300 years, was brutally conquered by invaders from the north. Refugees poured from Samaria into the southern stronghold of Judah, whose capital, Jerusalem, now stood as the only major city of the Jewish people. Poverty and disease were rampant as the Assyrian Empire fortified a menacing outpost on the edge of the land of Zion.
So it is from experience that Isaiah pronounces:
Your land is desolate, your cities burnt down;
strangers consume your land before your eyes;
it is desolation, like Sodom overthrown.
Only fair Zion is left;
she is like a booth in a vineyard,
like a hut in a cucumber-field,
like a city under siege (Isa. 1:7-8).
Such a place as Isaiah describes is the breeding-ground of warlords and profiteers, of charlatans who promise quick solutions and strongmen who prey on fear. It is so easy in a time of upheaval and unrest for the powerful to claim yet more for themselves. From the petty to the great, there is always someone at least a little lower than yourself – and the temptation is nearly inescapable to take from others what might make your life more secure.
And so Isaiah reminds us that we can—we must—take responsibility for our own moral actions, to ensure that even in a place where it seems that no one acts well, we will do the right thing.
Wash yourselves; cleanse yourselves,
put your evil doings away from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
learn to do good,
seek justice; relieve the oppressed.
Uphold the orphan’s rights;
take up the widow’s cause (Isa. 1:16-17).
Isaiah’s message is both righteous and inspirational, but the fact remains—and Isaiah knows it well—that the virtuous deeds of ordinary people can be eclipsed by the heinous crimes of those at the top. Leadership matters, and Isaiah knows that even an upright and moral population can be corrupted by those who pull the strings of power.
Your rulers are rebels, — the prophet says --
[and] cronies of thieves;
every one of them loves bribes and is avid for graft;
they do not decide the orphan’s case;
the widow’s cause never comes before them (Isa. 1:23).
With the Torah of justice on his lips, Isaiah tried his best to influence the rulers of his day. He directly confronted King Ahaz and his successor Hezekiah, urging them to heed the divine word and deliver the Kingdom of Judah from both moral and physical danger. He modeled with his life the actions all empowered individuals must take.
Today, two thousand eight hundred years later, we no longer have kings. But the halls of power remain filled with rebels and cronies of thieves, lovers of bribes who are avid for graft. The sacred project of democracy has endowed us with the privilege of Isaiah, to organize our voices into a call that demands to be heard. We cannot divorce ourselves from the actions of our leaders; we are implicated by them and responsible for them. That is why we, the heirs of a noble prophetic tradition, must do what we can to take charge not only of our own lives—though that is essential—but also the policies and positions of our local communities and the nation at large.
Isaiah bore witness to the failure of justice to prevail, and his prophetic successors would endure the crushing defeat of Jerusalem generations hence. But his vision of sacred moral action far outlived the desecrations of those he opposed. In preserving and promoting his words today, we advance the sacred mission to bring light to the world, to impact those around us, and to bring all humankind closer to redemption.
צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה.
Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and its repentant people by righteousness (Isa. 1:27).
“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.”