Parshat Dvarim, Shabbat Chazon: What is our vision for a post covid world?

Parshat Dvarim, Shabbat Chazon: What is our vision for a post covid world?

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of vision. The name comes from the opening word of the Book of Isaiah, the haftorah assigned to be read on this Sabbath, which precedes Tisha b’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

The vision of Isaiah is of more than historic relevance. The prophet’s words were written sometime after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, in 721 B.C.E., but before the first destruction of Jerusalem 140 years later. In Isaiah 1:2-9, the prophet appeals to the Jews who have survived the destruction and devastation of the Kingdom of Northern Israel to learn from the mistakes of others. In verses 18-25, the prophet warns the Jewish community of his day (and through our annual reading of this chapter, of our day as well) of the death and destruction, the alienation and isolation that awaits them (and us) if they do not choose to honor their obligations and responsibilities to God as conveyed to them in Torah.

In between these passages, in verses 10-17, Isaiah outlines for his contemporaries his suggestions as to the spiritual remedies necessary for the restoration of the covenantal partnership agreement between God and the Jewish people.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in his haftorah commentary, comments upon these eight verses, saying:“This ringing denunciation of hypocritical religion has sometimes been read as if Isaiah denounced ritual in general… But this is a complete misreading of the prophet’s message. Isaiah’s message is: If sacrifice or prayer are not accompanied by righteous living and pure intent, they are abhorrent to God… Isaiah’s condemnation is not of ritual per se, but rather, of rituals that are not accompanied by righteous living.”

Rabbi Plaut backs up his comment with a story from Midrash Numbers Rabba 25:21:

A pagan asked Rabbi Akiba: “Why do you celebrate your festivals? Did not the Holy One through Isaiah say to you: ‘I hate your festivals!’”

Rabbi Akiba answered: “If God had said, I hate ‘my new moons and my festivals’ you might have had a point. But God said ‘your new moons and your festivals’ — yours, not mine!’”

It is clear from the context of the Midrash as well as the Isaiah text itself that the critique of Jewish observance by both the prophet of the 8th century B.C.E. and Rabbi Akiva (who lived in the second century C.E.) did not concern ritual observances of the festivals. Rather, the basis of their critique was the failure of Jews to carry away from their rituals the ethical teachings and moral imperatives of Judaism and to incorporate them in their everyday life.

This year on this Shabbat of Vision I find myself asking the questions:

What is my vision of life post covid-19?

How has this pandemic changed not only my vision for my own life, but our communal vision?

Will we return to our synagogues for worship and study, or will we prefer to remain isolated and anonymous on Zoom and livestream?

The technological innovations that we have used during this year of pandemic have saved lives and feed our souls and our minds. While I believe broadcasting should be used as a vehicle going forward in bringing worship and study to those who cannot physically join in communal activity, I hope that 5782 will see a massive return of people to our synagogues. It is in the presence of community worship that I can best feel the Presence of God.

This week we are not only challenged by the vision of Isaiah but also by the visions of Moses that are conveyed to us in the opening of Deuteronomy. Written in the literary form of a series of sermons by Moses to Israel, Deuteronomy was, I believe, an attempt by a post Isaiah, 7th century B.C.E. generation of Jewish teachers to inspire their fellow Jews to, as we are taught in next week’s Torah reading, “serve God with all their heart soul and might,” with all their spiritual, cognitive, and physical power. Deuteronomy exhorts the reader to serve God by creating a just and compassionate society by having Moses remind us, time and again, that since God, who is our Creator and our Liberator, is both just and compassionate, we have the ability and the responsibility to treat each other, and all the others with whom we interact, with justice and compassion. It is our repayment to God for the gift of life.

In this week’s Torah reading, Moses learns from God that he will not live to enter Eretz Yisrael. After all he has been through as a servant of God and a communal leader of a very stiff-necked people, I have always wondered why Moses does not just quit. 

Rather, while he pleads with God for a reprieve, he also continues to exhort his congregation to remember and to learn from the mistakes of the past as they embark upon a new era in Jewish history. Deuteronomy is a series of passionate and eloquent homiletic pleas to People Israel to choose life over death and blessing over curse.

Tisha b’Av is a day of infamy in Jewish history. On Sunday, as we bemoan the disasters that have befallen our people on this date, Eicha’s laments are intended to make us recognize that we are not blameless victims. Isaiah in our haftorah for this Shabbat teaches us that the destruction of Israel in the eighth century B.C.E. was the result of Jews engaging in meaningless worship devoid of ethical and moral content. The Talmud teaches us that the destruction of the second Temple was a result of sinat chinam, the senseless hatred of Jews for our fellow Jews. The twentieth century was a proof text that when good people stand by and doing nothing, the moral vacuum they create is immediately filled with evil. Conversely, when good people join to bring to realization the visions of the prophets, the dreams of Deuteronomy can be realized.

The plague of covid-19 has been a prooftext that all human beings are inextricably connected to each other. Today, with the miraculous speedy development of vaccines, the challenges for the world is not whether we can deliver lifesaving medication, but rather, will we share the vaccines equitably and speedily, and will we counter the disinformation that is making too many people to refuse to be inoculated? 

May covid -19 vaccines not only save our world from this deadly viral plague, but also on this Shabbat Chazon be a catalyst for all of us to envision ourselves taking personal and communal responsibility for repairing the damage that we and past generations have done to both the fabric of the human world in which we live and the physical world upon which our very existence depends.

May we all use the time from now to Rosh Hashana as an opportunity, to begin the process of teshuvah, by which we can begin to repair ourselves, our community, and with God’s help the world as well.

read more: