This Shabbat is the “Shabbat of Prophetic Vision” and comes a few days before the 9th of Av, which is associated with the most devastating calamities that the Jewish people have faced throughout time – the most recognizable of these disasters are the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the second Temple by the Romans.
This low point represents also an unprecedented high level of Shabbat consciousness. Our Sages teach that this day represents the destruction of the Temple and the birth of the Mashiach – the destruction of all that is sacred and at the same moment the early stages of an emerging consciousness revealing a new paradigm.
The prophet Isaiah this morning calls for the collapse of the old paradigm due to its corruption and influence. He railed against social injustice, haughtiness, idol worship, calling the people the nation of Gomorrah. In the absence of justice, the sacred sacrifices of the Temple were devoid of meaning. Instead, he said, caring for the widow should be the expression of Divine worship.
Isaiah preached in the 8th century for about 20 years. He spoke to both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah and continued to preach after Israel’s fall to the Assyrians in 722 BCE.
By this time, Israel had been in the Promised land for almost 700 years. By the time of Isaiah, the northern kingdom had 18 kings – all of them bad and rebellious against God. The southern nation of Judah had 11 kings – some good and some bad. By the time Isaiah was preaching, the little nation of Israel was caught in the middle of wars between superpowers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.
These old systems of government did not work and were therefore unsustainable and had brought the people to the brink of mutual destruction. Our redemption is not found in the restoration of old ways but, as Isaiah calls for, Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and its repentant people by righteousness (Isaiah 1:27). A new system based on ethical morality must lie at the foundation of civilization.
We are hearing this call today demanding repentance from the old ways and justice for those who have been denied it. Protesters in our streets are seeking our state and local governments to repent and act with righteousness. But Isaiah, like those on the streets today, is calling that we transform the energy of contention toward the means of supporting life (they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more [Isaiah 2:4]). In this verse alone, the prophet paints a glorious picture of the future. The spiritual harmony we can create will be the moment when all nations shall proclaim universal peace. But in order for this to occur, we must replace our weapons of violence – both physical and metaphorical – with instruments that will sustain and nourish those whom our society has abandoned for too long.
Listen to how mayors and governors object to the use of violence to quell the protests of the people who prophetically are calling for justice and righteousness to rise above callousness, racism, heartlessness, and insensitivity.
Departing from the road we have traveled upon toward a new destination is hard. Moses, in this week’s Torah portion, stands on high telling the future of how God is setting out a new paradigm – a new existence – for the people, urging them to go forward and not be afraid. Go up, take possession of the land the Eternal God promised you, and be not afraid (Deuteronomy 1:21).
The future is fearful when you are asked to do something different. But you will not be abandoned by your God. The Eternal your God goes before you, will fight for you, just as God did before your eyes in Egypt and in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 1:29-31). Your religious values of tzedek, mishpat, emet, and t’shuvah (“righteousness, justice, truth, and repentance”) will quell the fear of the newness of this venture and encourage you to carry forward the message into your uncertain future.
And Isaiah is a visionary even for us today.
Your hands are filled with blood. 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 (Isaiah 1:15-17).
- He saw catastrophe as we see it today.
- He called for love, truth, and justice to replace sacrifices.
- He saw that a redeemed future was one where the people had risen above sin and entered a harmonious future, leaving behind the volatile present.
We too had a visionary, whom we memorialize this weekend. John Lewis, often referred to as the “conscience of the Congress”, died last week, but his voice will still be heard today and tomorrow. He called us to witness the catastrophe in our presence as he urged us to rise up in the face of it:
In 1963 at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in his speech during the March on Washington,
“…we must take the love, Brotherhood and true peace. I appeal to all of you to get in this great revolution. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, village, and hamlet of this country until true freedom comes, until the Revolution of 1776 is completed….” And ended with wake-up America. “Wake up. We will not be patient.”
Just a few years ago:
“Sometimes I want to believe we have made much more progress. But then I think we are not standing still but sliding back. The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society. We cannot sweep it under the rug or in some dark corner. We must deal with it. All of us” (on racism in the United States).
“We cannot go back. We must go forward and create a community that recognizes all of us.”
May this Shabbat and the encounter we face on Wednesday evening with the observance of Tisha B’Av help to eliminate everything that holds us back to old ways and old paradigms. May they prepare us for the birth of a new and more evolved opportunity for all, as we follow God into the future – a future that is just being born.