By Dr. Theodore Steinberg
This week we begin reading the book of D’varim, Deuteronomy, one of the most magnificent books in the Tanach, but instead of looking at that, I would like to focus on another aspect of this Shabbat, which is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of the Vision. It has that name because on this Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av, we read as the Haftorah the first chapter of the prophet Isaiah, which begins with the words, “Chazon Yishayahu,” the vision of Isaiah.
But this chapter presents no mystical vision, no esoteric symbolism. What it says is quite clear and easy to understand, though perhaps difficult to put into practice. And what is so striking about this passage is how relevant it was to Isaiah’s audience some 2,700 years ago and how relevant it still is to us, to our contemporary situation.
Isaiah is angry. Speaking in the name of God, he berates Israel for having abandoned Him. Does he mean by this that people no longer visit the Temple, that they don’t observe the rituals? Not at all. Clearly the people do visit the Temple, for he says, “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams…and blood of bulls…Who asked that of you? Trample my courts no more…Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing…”
How can this be? People go to the Temple (or, in our times, the synagogue} and offer sacrifices (or, in our time, prayers) and God not only rejects them but is furious with them? What is the problem?
Isaiah explains the problem. “Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime—Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wrong. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” In short, we cannot serve God if we neglect to serve our fellow human beings, particularly the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Our sacrifices, or our prayers, are meaningless while we ignore issues of social injustice—hunger, poverty, gun violence, brutality, mistreatment of immigrants. Prayer by itself is not only insufficient, says Isaiah, but it is indecent. Action is required. Cease to do evil. Devote yourself to justice. Aid the wronged.
We in Buffalo have many opportunities to do the things that God, through the words of Isaiah, demands of us. We can always act individually, of course, but there are many organizations devoted to social welfare and social justice that we can join, that we can help, and to which we can donate. Doing those things is a Jewish imperative, as much as hearing a shofar, holding a seder, or lighting Shabbat or Chanukah candles. In her recent book “The Obligated Self,” Mara Benjamin states that “to be a Jew…is to be obligated,” a sentiment we would do well to remember.
As we prepare for Tisha B’Av, we would do well to remember the reasons that Jerusalem was destroyed, and to remember that at the very heart of the Torah, in the middle of Leviticus, the middle book, is the statement that Rabbi Akiva said was the most important part of the Torah: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Dr. Theodore (Ted) Steinberg is a retired professor at SUNY Fredonia who today is a master teacher throughout Jewish Buffalo. Ted also serves on the Jewish Community Relations Council Executive Committee.