Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

This Shabbat is known by the name of its haftara, Shabbat Chazon – the Shabbat of the vision of Yeshayahu. It encompasses dire predictions about the fate of Israel should we continue in our defiance of Hashem. The navi says that he had the vision during the reign of Uziyahu but according to the Malbim, he recounted it under the monarchy of each successive king during his lifetime.

The Maharal explains in Gevurot Hashem (22:14) – dealing with the mechanics of redemption – that this Hebrew term for a vision, chazon, denotes the presence of the attribute of Divine judgment. For this he cites the Midrash in Bereishit Raba and brings several examples, including our haftara. Customarily, in classical Jewish philosophy, judgment represents the aspect of Divine rule that we might experience as unpleasant for us. But the Maharal explains that it is fitting that the foundation of redemption be built upon a basis of judgment because in this way it becomes immutable, like a law of nature. Therefore, he teaches, the first stirrings of redemption emerge from the desert – a place of barrenness and stern judgment.

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This is the paradox of the vision of Yeshayahu which is also inherent in Tisha B’Av, which we always observe in the week following this haftara. This year Shabbat is Tisha B’Av but we defer its observance until Sunday out of respect for the sanctity and joy of Shabbat. Our Sages teach that after the Beit HaMikdash is rebuilt, Tisha B’Av will become a joyous festival. Until then, Tisha B’Av is observed as a day of tragedy and lamentation because we are still unable to serve Hashem in the ways in which we were commanded to do so. We are not free in the places of our exile, or even in the land of Israel itself, to grow spiritually in the manner prescribed to us by our nevi’im.

We mourn because upon the return of the spies from the Land, the people of Israel mourned and we have still not recovered from that moral failure, and because in the times of the second Beit HaMikdash people couldn’t treat one another with simple kindness. We learn in Midrash Tanchuma and elsewhere in the writings of Chazal of the differences between the nevua of the prophets of Israel and that of the prophets of the nations of the world. Among these differences it is said that the prophets of Israel always channel mercy for Israel and for the other nations as well, but the prophets of the nations relate cruelty and unkindness. Our navi Yeshaya is a paradigmatic example of this.

But in our haftara, again a paradox: The navi speaks with kindness of terrible cruelty in judgment and divine mercy. Everything is balanced in this tension between redemption and total obliteration. In this, ultimately, inheres G-d’s overarching kindness. For the ending is going to be a happy one. However, the mechanism of redemption until the end continues this appearance of ambivalence because it must be rooted in judgment. The Maharal says this is why Avraham has to divide the bodies of the animals before receiving his great vision – the divided animals (gezarim) evoke the decree (gezera) wherein Hashem at last is forgiving of transgression and merciful to His people eternally.

“Tzion will be liberated in justice and her captives in charity” (Yeshayahu 1:27). The Hebrew word for charity, tzedaka, is an alternative form of tzedek, justice, and the word translated here as justice, mishpat, is a unique form of justice that comes from fair judgment. The navi is promising us that when the end comes for us, it will be an end to our suffering, ushering in an era of spiritual expansion and great joy for all those who experience it. This promise may be relied upon because it is not simply the kind words of a benevolent deity but is the only just and fair outcome for the end of history.

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Avraham Levitt is a poet and philosopher living in Philadelphia. He has written on Israeli art, music, and spirituality and is working to reawaken interest in medieval Jewish mysticism. He can be reached at avraham@thegeula.com.
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