Tonight begins Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Vision: the vision of Isaiah, a prediction of the destruction of Judaea and the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians as a consequence of the evils of society. Saturday night (8/10) through Sunday evening is the full day fast of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, marking the destruction of the ancient Holy Temple along with other catastrophes of Jewish history, such as the exile from Spain in 1492.
Tisha B'Av itself is a day replete with mourning: not only fasting but chanting the book of lamentations and other kinot (dirges), sitting on the floor like mourners, refraining from greetings. These concrete rituals create a sort of psychodrama or affective education in Jewish history. They evoke our difficult national memories of sieges, exiles and deportations. This summer observance has little appeal to non-Orthodox Jews and I have seldom been able to convene a service or program with more than a couple of people.
But the meaning of this day is more relevant than ever, and let me explain why.
This Shabbat is a Shabbat of preparation, and vision. It is striking to me that the book of Isaiah provides the most beautiful and uplifting visions of world peace and harmony in all of the Bible. And yet the Shabbat that we call the “Shabbat of Vision” has a negative vision of destruction: “Your land is waste, your cities burned down.” And the cause is clearly spelled out, an unjust and unfaithful society: “Ah, sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! (You get the point).
G-d is apparently tired of empty “thoughts and prayers” and desiring of right action: “Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained…wash yourselves clean…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... [then] be your sins like crimson, they can turn pure as snow.”
Some modern day prophets had a way of motivating with a positive vision, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I have a dream speech” of an equal and just society in America. Many more who predict our global and national future paint dire pictures of where we are headed, be that an unraveling of democracy or a growing environmental disaster.
I have always been opposed to scaring people into doing the right thing. Our Sages preferred to emphasize the positive. Indeed after Tisha B’Av, we will turn to seven weeks of beautiful and uplifting prophetic visions in our haftaroth leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
But once a year, we have to confront the darkest visions, the most destructive destinations of our current trajectory. We are indeed headed toward environmental meltdown at a growing pace, and yet our government is removing environmental regulations and withdrawing from international treaties. We turn on the news to fatal mass shootings on a regular basis. Children cry because they are separated from their parents due to immigration violations or for seeking asylum at our borders. Our national conversation has turned to anger and mocking, and we fail to find common ground to address some of our biggest problems. Like the Judeans at the time of the Roman destruction, as Americans (and also as Jews on many matters) we are bitterly divided among ourselves.
Contemporary Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Arthur Waskow have universalized the meaning of Tishva B’Av, by tying it to the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which also occurred at these seasons, or by singing a modern lament for the destruction of species and natural habitats on the planet.
Like all our rabbis of old, I encourage us enter that heart of darkness. . .but then to turn around, as we embark on our annual season of teshuvah, sacred return. We have looked unblinkingly at the worst of history and envisioned a future of destruction. But we cannot despair and stop there. We must pull back from that brink, turning toward a positive vision and making the necessary changes to realize it. My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi often said that the 20th century offered us two competing visions: the mushroom cloud (today I would say the melting polar icecaps and burning cities of climate change) on the one hand, and on the other the shining universal vision of our blue earth as seen from outer space.
To choose life is to confront the reality of the first, and then consciously pivot to the second.
As a rabbi, I believe in motivating with positive visions, with love of our fellow beings and love of our natural world. I think those are the only long-term ways to make deep and enduring change. But to do so while ignoring the dreadful potential of our current trajectory would be fantasy, not faith. My personal definition of emunah, faith, is “affirmation in the face of uncertainty.” I am not certain, but I affirm.
So whether or not you fast on Tisha B’Av, I encourage you to open to the vision today, and to lament that vision tomorrow. And then get up from the floor, dust ourselves off, and get back to the work of Tikkun Olam.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: