Vision, Blood, and Learning

UPDATED 8/7/22 evening with note on transliteration and link to epilogue

Three challenging Bible passages come together in the Jewish calendar in the next two days:

  • Devarim (Deut 1:1-3:12), the first portion in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut 1:1-3:12);
  • Isaiah 1:1-27, the prophetic reading which gives this Shabbat it’s special name, “Shabbat of Vision,” or Shabbat Chazon; and
  • Eikha, the Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’av.

In some years, there are several days between Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B’av — offering a chance for us to take the admonitions to heart before entering into the deepest day of mourning the Jewish calendar and then beginning the slow climb toward the new year. Some years, like this one, leave no space between that last Shabbat of Affliction (or Admonition) and Tisha B’av. So we’re about to enter a complicated couple of days.


Historical and Literary Context

A bit of history is useful for viewing the confluence of readings for Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B’av:

  • Eikha/Lamentations is probably, current scholarship says, from the middle of the 6th Century BCE, although some parts may be older; the book as a whole is traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah (c. 650-570 BCE).
  • Jeremiah was active at the time of King Josiah (c.640-609 BCE), from the 13th year of the young king’s reign through Exile and the destruction of the First Temple. Substantial portions of the Book of Deuteronomy are also linked with King Josiah’s era.
  • The prophet Isaiah lived a century earlier, with the year 733 BCE a prominent date for his vision… which led him to criticize focus on ritual when what is required is tending to those in need:

Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates…
Your hands are full of blood (stained with crime).
…Seek justice, relieve the oppressed….
How [Eikha] is the faithful city…once full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers!
–Isa 1:14-17, 1:21


How?!

That mournful cry, beginning with the word “Eikha” in Isaiah 1:21, is echoed in both Deuteronomy and the book of that name.

For the record, “eikha” appears only the once in Isaiah, four times in Eikha, and five times in Deuteronomy, plus twice in Jeremiah and once each in four other books of Tanakh. (See handout, “Eikha and Chazon,” below).

Isaiah’s vision prompts us to consider any number of collective crimes. The compressed time period of Shabbat followed immediately by the day of mourning makes it difficult to process or respond. But Isaiah doesn’t just leave us with blood on our hands; he suggests a way forward:

Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice;
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.

Isaiah 1:17 (see “Isaiah page one” handout, also below)

We can read this message as a simple “do better.” And, of course, that is what we are being told to do. But we must also heed that first commandment: Learn.

For nearly 3000 years, Isaiah has railing at us that we have blood on our hands. And for just as long, the prophet has been telling us that the first step — before trying to undertake the work of justice, provide aid, uphold anyone’s rights, or defend the most vulnerable — is to learn.

We can inform ourselves about the problems and issues. We can listen to the voices of those most affected by crimes in which we have participated, however inadvertently. We can get to know what solutions others are already working to implement. We can learn more about Jewish history, practice, and philosophy to shore up our ability to respond Jewishly — and/or steep ourselves in other traditions that inspire us.

For nearly 3000 years, Jewish tradition has been calling us to do better by learning better.


TRANSLITERATION NOTE: The Hebrew word ” איכה ” is pretty commonly transliterated “eicha” (and this blog often used that spelling in the past); eikha is used here, though, in an effort to make clear the distinction between the chet of “[חזון] chazon” and the khaf of “eikha.”


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PDF Handouts

Handout for Hill Havurah, six-page-PDF includes both “Eicha and Chazon” (5 pages) and “Isaiah page one” (1 page) in one document. Also below: separate pieces.

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Eicha and Chazon (five-page-PDF, originally prepared for Temple Micah in 2019 and re-shared with Hill Havurah and Tzedek Chicago in 2022) —

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Isaiah page one — (one-page-PDF) three translations for Isa 1:15-18 and some definitions.

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Toward Anti-Racism — Selichot Sources

This year, I was privileged to help Hill Havurah create some readings and prayers to help guide us through reflection around racial justice and teshuvah [repentance/return]: what more can we help transform through identifying, and seeking to make amends, alone and together, for, previously unrecognized errors of thought, word, and deed? (More on this project and to download.)

Selichot Sources: Toward Anti-Racism prepared by Rachel Conway and Virginia Spatz, for Hill Havurah, with advising from Rachel Faulkner, National Jews of Color Organizer, Dimensions Educational Consulting.

Also, in preparation for the high holidays, some sources for the double Torah portion Nitzavim-Vayeilech.