Today is known as Shabbat Chazon because we read a passage from the beginning of the book of Isaiah tomorrow morning, which begins with Isaiah’s vision, his Chazon.
“What need have I of all your sacrifices?” Says the LORD. “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me— Who asked that of you? Trample My courts no more; Bringing oblations is futile, Incense is offensive to Me. New moon and sabbath, Proclaiming of solemnities, Assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide. Your new moons and fixed seasons Fill Me with loathing; They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; 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 wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.
I will restore your magistrates as of old, And your counselors as of yore. After that you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City. Zion shall be saved in the judgment; Her repentant ones, in the retribution.
What a devastating vision it is of a place that has become defiled with injustice and ritualised piety that overshadows righteousness. This place is Judah and Jerusalem, the land that Moses is preparing the people to enter as we read the repetition of the history of the Children of Israel in the book of Deuteronomy. So just as we read that the people are making their way to the inhabit the land promised to their ancestors, we temper our excitement with the realisation that this is not going to end well and the theological blessings and curses that occur later in the book of Deuteronomy will come into full effect. As the promise of the land is repeated, the devastation associated with Tisha B’Av (tomorrow) is being foreshadowed.
Yet Isaiah mentions, almost in passing, that a small remnant survives the destruction and it is from that remnant that the people will be reborn. We therefore are deeply conscious of the significance of Tisha B’Av – a time at which we remember the destruction and tragedies that befell the Jewish people.
Isaiah’s prophecy forces us to hold the idea of hope and devastation in mind at one time. It begins and ends with reference to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, in one midrash, is described as a portmanteau of two words. One word is offered by Abraham, symbolic of the particularism of the Jewish people, ‘Adonai Yireh’ (God will see). The other word is offered by Shem ‘Shalem’ which seems to be symbolic of the universality of humankind.
“Abraham called the place ‘Yir’eh,’ as it is written, ‘Abraham called the name of that place Adonai Yir’eh.’ Shem called it ‘Shalem,’ as it is written, ‘Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem.’ The Holy One said: If I call the place ‘Yir’eh,’ as Abraham called it, then Shem – a righteous man – will be offended. If I call it ‘Shalem,’ then Avraham – a righteous man – will be offended. So I shall call it “Yerushalayim,” as both of them called it: [Yir’eh] Shalem – Yerushalayim.” (Genesis Rabbah 26:10)
The portmanteau is, in the words of the midrash from around the 5th Century of the common era, an attempt for God to recognise the contribution of two righteous people. As a result Jerusalem is neither ‘Yireh’ nor ‘Shalem’ but ‘Yireh-Shalem’ – God sees to peace and wholeness – in the act of naming itself God promotes peace.
And at the other end of Isaiah’s prophecy we hear of a City of Righteousness – Ir Tzedek. Tzedek, righteousness or justice is something that is at the heart of Jewish teaching. It brings with it a sense of balance – having ‘right’ weights and measures for example. It is the even handed scales of righteousness and justice that are necessary for peaceful and prosperous life. From this word we derive the Hebrew word for charity – tzedakah. Tzedakah is not just giving money, from a religious world view, it is a rebalancing, a readjustment of the potential and opportunity for every human being, a recalibration. Isaiah’s prophecy therefore carries with it a message that Jerusalem, which shall be laid to waste in the Babylonian conquest, can be both a symbol of peace and justice in the future.
But, it’s not a task that rests with God to bring peace and righteousness to the world, with the city of Jerusalem being a symbolic reflection of these values. The mythic and idealistic aspirations for the world are hinted at by the Jerusalem of old and the sacred texts of our heritage. Yet transforming the idealism into a reality is something that rests firmly with the tireless efforts of people, of those with continuing passion and commitment to the potential for progress for the inhabitants of this small planet.
In fact, if I might add to the interpretations of the meaning of the name Jerusalem. We have ‘God will see to peace’ or perhaps ‘City of Peace’, or even ‘Founded by God of peace’. The root of the word for ‘Aim’ in Hebrew is ירה, from which we derive the word Torah (meaning instruction – an aim towards something). So Jerusalem could be Yeru Shalem – aim for peace. We set our sights on the target of peace and righteousness and it is only ‘we’ who are responsible for accuracy and accomplishing the task at hand. Indeed, Isaiah himself likened his prophetic role to the polished arrow concealed in God’s quiver. We aim ourselves, we complete the task or no-one does.
The chazon, the vision of the Jerusalem for us as Jews today is one in which we hold more than one, even two or three ideas in mind at any one time. We hold the ideas of destruction and hope, the visions of peace and justice, the message of our particular story and the universal story of humankind. This is the delicate task in which we are involved.
I’d like to finish with the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote the book ‘Israel: An Echo of Eternity’ which is really a paean to Jerusalem in the wave of optimism that briefly cast its spell on the Jewish world after the Six Day War. When I read of Jerusalem in our prayers it is Heschel’s writing that I think of:
“Who will fan and force the fire of truth to spread across the world, insisting that we are all one, that mankind is not an animal species but a fellowship of care, a covenant of brotherhood?
None shall fear, none shall hurt.
There is cursing in the world, scheming, and very little praying. Let Jerusalem inspire praying: an end to rage, an end to violence.
Let Jerusalem be a seat of mercy for all men. Whenever a sigh is uttered, it will evoke active compassion in Jerusalem.
Let there be no waste of history. This must be instilled in those who might be walking in the streets of Jerusalem like God’s butlers in the sacred palace. Here no one is more than a guest.
Jerusalem must not be lost to pride or to vanity.
All of Jerusalem is a gate, but the key is lost in the darkness of God’s silence. Let us light all the lights, let us call all the names, to find they key.” (Israel: an echo of eternity p.36-7)