Posted on July 16, 2021 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
This Shabbat, the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, is called Shabbat Chazon, named for the chazon, the vision of the Prophet Isaiah that is the Haftarah for this day. It is a dark and menacing vision of the impending doom the Israelites are bringing upon themselves. They are guilty of spiritual hypocrisy, says Isaiah, for they worship God with false piety while pursing evil and injustice. “Wash yourselves clean,” says the Prophet. “Put your evil doings away from my sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; devote yourselves to justice, aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow,” he pleads, lest you be devoured by the sword of your enemies.
The calamity of which Isaiah warned did in fact come to pass. The Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and sent its people into exile, from which they would not return. What I find remarkable about Isaiah’s prophecy is not that his dire warning came true, but that he lay the responsibility for it upon his own people rather than upon our enemies, whose ambitions of conquest were clearly to blame.
Our rabbis made the same interpretive move regarding the destruction of the great Temple in Jerusalem, the events we mourn on Tisha B’Av. Rather than highlight the hostility of the Babylonians and the Romans, the rabbis opted to engage in self-examination and scrutiny — to look within and ask hard questions about ourselves and our behaviors. Did we act in ways that brought destruction upon us? If so, lessons can be learned, and we can choose to change and repair our ways.
Our tradition calls this kind of reflection cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of the soul, and it is considered critical to the pursuit of righteousness. The month of Elul and the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are especially dedicated to this task, because we cannot seek forgiveness for our sins unless we face up to them, and this requires self-examination.
When such reflection is collective rather than individual, there is an added value. The faults of one generation are never limited to that generation alone. They are universal human failings that we can identify in ourselves and in our society, to differing degrees. In this regard, our tradition has given us a gift in the words of Isaiah and the teachings of the rabbis. Their cheshbon nefesh can inspire our own accounting and help us to recognize and address the behaviors that imperil our future.
Rather than speak in generalities, I would like to focus on one line in Isaiah’s prophecy and share a story it calls to mind. It is a story about a common human failing that I believe poses a potent threat to the future of our society.
In denouncing the corruption of Israel and its leaders, Isaiah declares: “Your silver has turned to dross; your wine is cut with water.”
Once upon a time, in a far-away kingdom, there lived a great king who loved his people and was greatly loved by them. As the king’s birthday approached, he thought to invite all his people to join in celebration. So, he asked his subjects to bring some of their best wine and put it in one great vat. Together, it would make the very best wine, a great honor to the king on his special day, and a joy they all could share.
One subject thought to himself, I truly do want to honor the king with my very best wine. But there will be so much wine in the great vat, how will anyone know if I mix my wine with water — half wine, half water. My wine won’t make a difference.
When the day of the great celebration arrived, excitement filled the air. The mood was festive in anticipation of the joy the people would share in honoring and celebrating their beloved ruler.
The king approached the vat. “This will be the very best wine there ever was — each of my subjects has brought their best — the best of each joined together!” The royal cupbearer dipped his cup into the vat and served the king a glass of wine. The king took a sip. But instead of joy and delight, a look of horror came over his face.
What went wrong? You see, it wasn’t just one person who mixed his wine with water. Everybody did. So, the vat was filled with half wine and half water! Each one thought, “My wine is such a small part, it won’t make a difference what I give.”
Is this not a story for our time? Do we not live in a world of abundance? And are we not blessed with gifts to contribute to the success and enrichment of our society? But too many of us think like the subjects of the king in this story. We think only of ourselves and not of the collective wellbeing. Our wine is cut with water, as the Prophet said, and the results are self-evident. America could have crushed the coronavirus by now, if only every citizen had thought of the common good and gotten vaccinated. And this is just one example of the myriad ways in which so many behave, as if they bear no responsibility for the community at large.
As is the case with every biblical prophecy, Isaiah’s vision ends with a message of hope and possibility. It is too late for the Israelites of his day who failed to heed his warnings, but it is not too late for us. “Zion shall be redeemed through justice,” declared the Prophet, “and those who repent through righteousness.”
May our remembrance of days past and the sufferings of our people inspire us to engage in deep self-reflection that we may grow in goodness and be worthy of great blessing.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck