Parashat Devarim – the first in the last book of the Torah – is always read on the Shabbat before the Tisha b’Av Fast, which will be on Thursday this week, as is the Haftarah from Isaiah – the last of the ‘Three Haftarot of Affliction’, chosen for their relevance to the Three Weeks.
Isaiah had a vision ‘ the ‘chazon’ of the name. His vision was not of the destruction of the First Temple, but of God’s anger with His people for the behaviour which was to cause the destruction. The language is poetic and grand, but cuts to the bone – it is chilling to read.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted: “It is more than great literature. It expresses one of the great prophetic truths, that a society cannot flourish without honesty and justice. It could not be more relevant to our time. Jerusalem’s fate was sealed not by conventional religious failure but by the failure of people to act honestly. They engaged in sharp business practices that were highly profitable but hard to detect – mixing silver with baser metals, diluting wine. People were concerned with maximizing profits, indifferent to the fact that others would suffer. The political system too had become corrupt. Politicians were using their office and influence to personal advantage. People knew about this or suspected it – Isaiah does not claim to be telling people something they didn’t already know; he does not expect to surprise his listeners. The fact that people had come to expect no better from their leaders was itself a mark of moral decline.”
If we ask why Tisha b’Av is still relevant today – let’s ask ourselves: have we, with all our sophistication and civilisation, learned the lessons? It is the time to heed the warnings – that HaShem does not want our Fasts and prayers, our rituals and self-satisfaction, if they do not match our behaviour.
We cannot be passive; the imperative is to act.
As Isaiah says, in 1:17: “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow”.