Most of us perceive the books of Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu as essentially teaching the following message: You are terrible, so repent, or you will be destroyed. As we examine the choice of Yeshayahu as the prophet we read on Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, we shall see that there are great differences between these books that hardly can be described as delivering the same monochromatic message.
The Puzzling Choice of Yeshayahu
Chazal (cited in Tosafot Megillah 31b s.v. Rosh Chodesh Av) ordain that in the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av we read three haftarot of distress (gimmel d’puranuta), beginning with Chapter 1 of Yirmiyahu, followed by Yirmiyahu 2, and climaxing with the first chapter of Yeshayahu. The choice of Yirmiyahu is very obvious. Yirmiyahu is the prophet of the Churban. The first haftarah presents Hashem’s mission statement to Yirmiyahu, which states that his primary mission is to communicate the message of the upcoming destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and Yerushalayim. Indeed, almost the entire book of Yirmiyahu is devoted to themes of destruction. Chazal (Bava Batra 14b) describe Sefer Yirmiyahu as “entirely about destruction.” Indeed, the sefer describes at length Yirmiyahu’s experiences before, during and after the destruction.
The choice of Yeshayahu as the concluding message of the gimmel d’puranuta is shocking, to say the least. Yeshayahu, as stated in his opening pasuk, lives during the reigns of Uzziyahu through Chizkiyahu. Accordingly, Yeshayahu lives more than 100 years before the Churban (destruction of the Temple). Indeed, Chizkiyahu’s reign is followed by Menasheh (who rules for 55 years), Amon, Yoshiyahu, Yehoyakim, and finally Tzidkiyahu, in whose time the Beit Hamikdash is destroyed. Accordingly, Yirmiyahu would have been a far superior choice to read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av.
Moreover, in Yeshayahu’s description of the land being destroyed, he describes Yerushalayim as being left as a remaining “hut in a vineyard” (Yeshayahu 1:8). This refers to the Land of Israel made desolate by the invading Assyrians, who exiled the residents of the Northern kingdom, and destroyed almost all of the Southern kingdom, except for Yerushalayim, which was saved by the great miracle of Hashem smiting the huge Assyrian army one night while they were besieging Yerushalayim (Melachim II 18-19).
This seems highly out of place on Shabbat Chazon, when we commemorate Yerushalayim’s destruction! Yirmiyahu, on the other hand, clearly communicates (Yirmiyahu 1:15 and throughout the sefer) that Yerushalayim will be destroyed, and not spared as it was during the days of Chizkiyahu. Thus, the choice of Yeshayahu as the haftarah of Shabbat Chazon is puzzling indeed. We offer three complementary answers to this vexing problem.
Yeshayahu Teaches that Hashem Is Fair
One reason to read Yeshayahu 1 on Shabbat Chazon is to demonstrate that Hashem is fair. Yeshayahu promises us that if we improve we shall “eat the goodness of the land” (Yeshayahu 1:19). On the other hand, he presents Hashem’s warning that if we refuse to improve and continue to rebel “we shall be consumed by the sword.” Accordingly, we cannot complain to Hashem about the Churban since He sent prophets to warn us even more than a century before the catastrophe.
In Megillat Eicha we express anger at Hashem in pesukim such as “He drew His arrow like an enemy” (Eicha 2:4) and “He ambushes me like a bear, like a lion in waiting” (Eicha 3:4). We clarify in the haftarah of Shabbat Chazon, however, that upon sober reflection, we realize that “Hashem is righteous in all His ways” (Tehillim 145:17).
Yeshayahu’s Message of Hope
We noted that Chazal characterize the book of Yirmiyahu as “entirely about destruction.” This is because in Yirmiyahu’s time the sentence of the Churban has already been pronounced by Chuldah the prophetess (Melachim II 22:14-20). In fact, in the first chapter of Yirmiyahu, Hashem presents the image of a boiling pot (1:13) to show that things have reached their boiling point, and that Hashem is poised for the Churban. Hashem also shows Yirmiyahu an almond rod because the Hebrew word for almond, shakeid, sounds like shokeid, that Hashem is very much ready to fulfill His word, to destroy due to our great sins, without further delay. The commentators debate as to whether there is any hope of teshuvah at this point (Abarbanel argues that teshuvah was still possible), but even if it were possible, the chance of success is very slim because of the overwhelming difficulty of repenting from the many sins that have accumulated over the generations.
Yeshayahu, on the other hand, lives long before Chuldah issues her harsh prophecy. Yeshayahu is filled with prophecies of nechamah (comfort), especially in Yeshayahu 40-66, from which we read seven selections as haftarot in the seven weeks after Tisha B’Av, the last being read immediately before the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah. In Yeshayahu 2 and 11, the navi presents grand prophecies of the Messianic age. Indeed, Chazal (ad. loc.) describe Yeshayahu as “entirely devoted to consolation.” Even Yishayahu 1, which contains some very harsh words of rebuke (such as 1:4, 1:9 and 1:15), also presents promise for a better future if we improve ourselves (Yeshayahu 1:19). Yeshayahu even presents specific recommendations for how we can find redemption: “Zion will be redeemed with justice” (Yeshayahu 1:27).
It is vitally important for us to hear the message of Yeshayahu before Tisha B’Av instead of that of Yirmiyahu, because our experience of Tisha B’Av should not be one exclusively of mourning. Megillat Eicha concludes with the hopeful plea of “chadeish yameinu k’kedem,” that Hashem reinstate His relationship of old with us, and rebuild the Beit Hamikdash. Moreover, R. Yosi ben Chanina teaches (Makkot 24a, as understood by Rav Kook) that the burden of cumulative sins that rested upon the generation of Yirmiyahu had been relieved after the Churban, when Yechezkel delivered the message that Hashem granted us a fresh start (Yirmiyahu 20). Thus, Yeshayahu’s message of hope is far more relevant to us than Yirmiyahu’s message of doom.
Yeshayahu’s Focus on Mitzvot Bein Adam LaChaveiro
There is yet another reason why Yeshayahu’s message is far more relevant to us than that of Yirmiyahu. Yirmiyahu notes that the primary reason for the destruction of the (first) Beit Hamikdash is the proliferation of idolatry amongst our ancestors (Yirmiyahu 1:16, inter alia). Fortunately, the zeal for idolatry has cooled (see Yoma 69b), and idolatry is not a primary concern for us today.
Yeshayahu, however, focuses on justice and honest business dealings (Yeshayahu 1:21-23). In Yeshayahu 1, he makes no mention of idolatry. One may surmise that since this chapter reflects the realities of the time of the very righteous king Chizkiyahu, concern for idolatry is hardly relevant, since Chizkiyahu has wiped Eretz Yisrael clean of idolatry and even bamot (private altars outside the Beit Hamikdash), as recounted in Melachim II 18:4. Chizkiyahu rallies the Jewish people in an effort to rededicate the Beit Hamikdash and offer proper korbanot (Divrei HaYamim II 29-30).
Thus, the Assyrian onslaught and near destruction of Chizkiyahu’s kingdom leaves people wondering why we deserve such suffering, and why the merit of Chizkiyahu’s great deeds does not spare us from this terrible upheaval and turmoil. Yeshayahu answers these questions by telling us that although we are bringing many sacrifices and are dedicated to the Beit Hamikdash, Hashem is still angry at us due to our failures in our interpersonal relationships. The judicial system is corrupt (Yeshayahu 1:23) and people are dishonest in their business dealings (Yeshayahu 1:22).
Yeshayahu’s message is more relevant to the sins that precipitate the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash (Yoma 9b, Bava Metzia 30b, and the Netziv’s introduction to Sefer Bereishit), which are failures in interpersonal relationships. Sadly, this remains all too relevant for us today. Although we have seen a resurgence of observance of mitzvot between man and Hashem during the past few decades, both in Israel and in North America, some would argue that we are lagging in our performance of interpersonal mitzvot.
It is heartening to visit weekday minyanim, both in Israel and North America, that are filled to capacity with worshippers. This was hardly the case 40 years ago, and reflects an overall heightened awareness and level of observance of many aspects of the halacha. One receives the impression, though, that the issues Yeshayahu complains about are not given the priority they should be granted. Indeed, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik (“Reflections of the Rav,” pp. 152-153) has remarked that the true test of a truly pious individual is the manner in which he deals in his financial and interpersonal affairs.
The haftarah for Shabbat Chazon presents our generation with a great challenge. Our generation will be redeemed not only with heightened shul attendance, higher kashrut standards, and more Torah study, but also with the aspiration for the highest levels of respect shown to all individuals, and with our checkbooks being as kosher as our kitchens. We will only merit to realize the lofty visions of Yeshayahu if we heed his words that Zion will be redeemed with justice, and not only with the stringent observance of ritual.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.