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Haftara for Debarim-Hazon 5777: Do it Right
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,
The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference,
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference,
And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
— Elie Wiesel
“You can present the material, but you can’t make me care.”
— Bill Watterson (Creator of Calvin and Hobbes)
This haftara is always read on the shabbat before the 9th of Ab known as Shabbat Hazon. The shabbat is named for the opening word of its haftara — Hazon Yishaya ben Amots – The vision of Yishaya son of Amots. It is also the opening chapter of the book of Isaiah.
The people are accused by Yishaya of having devolved to a point akin to that of Sodom and Gomorrah. God rejects their offerings, prayers and festivals and bids them to stop. They are described as utterly broken, wounded and evil without even a concern to rectify the damage. They are guided towards reparation by instruction to seek righteousness and fight for the downtrodden. They are told that the crimson colour of their iniquities can become white as snow.
Yishaya laments the transformation of Zion, a once just and faithful city, into a harlot. Injustice is rampant, yet God promises that He will ‘restore your magistrates as of old, and your counsellors as of yore. After that you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City’.
In the harshest haftara of the year, we read a scathing rebuke from God against Israel. Yishaya pulls no punches in his prophecy and does not soften the blows with words of consolation. The nation comprises a rebellious people (1:2), heavily laden with corruption (3). Every heart is sick, every head is ailing (5), and the nation is bruised from head to toe (6).
Yet, all of these are symptoms of a deeper problem. If we are to heed the words of the prophet in order to find some reparation and repentance, addressing the symptoms will be of no real help. We must listen to the words of Yishaya and identify the root cause of our failure. We might think that the strongest reproach from the prophets would focus on active transgression such as theft and adultery. But we hear nothing of such sins. Instead, we hear about our flawed performance of mitsvot.
God finds Israel’s service to be a tedious nuisance. He demands that the korbanot (sacrifices) should be withheld. He cannot bear their sabbaths. He hates their festivals. He cannot stand to pay attention to their prayers and blessings.
Don’t continue bringing meaningless offerings…Rosh Hodesh and Shabbat… I cannot bear. My soul hates your Rosh Hodesh and festivals. They have become a burden for Me, I cannot endure them. (11-15)
They are practising, but it is their way of keeping the commandments that is abhorrent to God. Their acts are empty, self-serving and manipulative.
God said: This nation approaches me with its mouth and respects me with its lips but has kept its heart far from me. And their fear of me is a commandment of people learned by rote…(29:13)
Their insincerity is considered nothing less than evil.
Brood of evildoers! … Put your evildoings away from my sight, cease to do evil. (4,15-16)
The root of the problem then, is not the breach of the Torah’s restrictions but the heartless and apathetic performance of the Torah’s prescriptions.
While refraining from the Torah’s prohibitions keeps us within the boundaries of the covenant, the positive charges to action provide us with opportunities for building a working connection with God. Both are necessary.
Keep from evil and do good. (Proverbs, 34:15)
There are few things more hurtful to us in a caring relationship than when we discover that the one we love is performing acts of care that are neither genuine nor sincere. This is God’s central issue with us in the haftara. We are soliciting acts of love without any interest in building the relationship.
How has it happened that she has become a prostitute?
The faithful city that was filled with justice. (21)
We are often told that a way to become a better Jew and grow closer to God is to increase the number of mitsvot we do in our lives. Yet, the mindset that is required of us, and the context in which a mitsva must be performed, is rarely if ever, discussed. We have overwhelmingly come to believe that God is interested in a quota of deeds rather than the heart and mind that drive them.
Israel’s prophets and hakhamim do not recognise the number of mitsvot one does as a value in itself. We never find them encouraging Israel to add mitsvot to their repertoire as a way of achieving teshuba (repentance) and closeness with God. In fact, surprisingly we find that God is not interested at all in how many mitsvot the people perform, but rather on their intention and mindset.
One whose merits are greater than his iniquities is a tsadik (righteous). One whose iniquities are greater than his merits is a rasha (corrupt)…this assessment is not based on the number of merits or sins but on the magnitude. There is merit that is similar in magnitude to many iniquities…and there is iniquity that is similar in magnitude to many merits… (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuba, 3)
It is only the context in which a mitsva is performed that renders it valid and meaningful. This is reiterated in the words of the Torah, Nebi’im and Talmud.
The Hakhamim tell us blatantly that it is not quantity but quality that matters:
One can do little or one can do much, but he must aim his heart toward Heaven. (Berakhot, 5b)
And it is the thought that counts:
The Holy One desires the heart. (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemuel I, 124).
These statements stem directly from such indications in the Torah and Prophets.
Before Moshe can give over a single commandment, he is warned by God that he must first qualify it with an introduction announced to the entire nation. This sets the terms for the performance of the mitsvot.
Now Moshe went up to God. And God called out to him from the mountain saying: Say thus to the House of Yaakob, tell the children of Yisrael: You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. So now, if you will hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be a special treasure from among all people, for all the earth is mine; And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. These are the words that you are to speak to the children of Yisrael. (Ex., 19:3-6)
An act of love is naturally joyful. It is done with excitement and passion. Every commandment from God, is a charge to enthusiasm. Doing mitsvot without joy incurs divine retribution.
In lieu of not serving the Lord your God in joy and in good-feeling of heart out of the abundance of everything, so will you have to serve your enemies, whom God will send forth against you…. (Deut., 28)
God insists that the people hear the mitsvot in the context of a covenant and loving relationship and perform them exclusively within that framework. Time and again He expresses to Israel that this is the defining difference between a mundane act and a mitsva.
We tragically forget that beyond doing a mitsva (לעשות) there is the concept of keeping a mitsva (לשמור). Keeping a mitsva means that we protect it and watch over it – we guard its value. Doing without keeping is inherently flawed.
The idea that one can do a mitsvah in the wrong context and thereby render it invalid, is legally established by Rambam:
How high is the level of Teshuva? Yesterday this person was separate from God Lord of Israel…he would do misvot and they would be ripped up in his face…and today [in teshuva] he clings to the Shekhina…he does misvot and they are received with pleasure and happiness…(Hilkhot Teshuba, 7:7)
Full teshuba is not a deed, but an existential circumstance of return to the true meaning of our lives and our relationship with God.
While we cannot always perform mitsvot from this wholesome, spiritual perspective, we nonetheless strive towards it with regular practice so that when we do achieve it — often unexpectedly — we are used to practising the deeds. Even if we do not feel the joy, love and fervour that we should in a given situation, if we would wish to feel it (assuming we were in full control of our thoughts and feelings), not only is it recognised and welcomed as such by God, but it also opens us up to genuinely experiencing it.
Apathy corrodes the heart. Insincerity is easily seen as the imposter that it is and the hurt it brings cuts deep. We would not tolerate it in our human relationships and God certainly does not tolerate it in His.
This is at the heart of Yishaya’s hazon – his vision. He signals that our self-centredness and lack of care has rendered us an utterly broken people.
Your leaders are rogues and cronies of thieves, every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts; They do not judge the case of the orphan, And the widow’s cause never reaches them.
We are on the brink.
Had not the Lord of Hosts left us some survivors, we should be like Sodom, another Gomorrah. (9)
His solution? Learn to care; actively search for opportunities to do good and show love. Learn what it means to use your heart.
Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow. (17)
The more we practice the more we open ourselves up to genuinely being good people both in thought and deed. We learn how to love, which is the ultimate goal in all of our commandments.
And it will be if you listen to my commandments that I command you today to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul….
We read this haftara each year in preparation for the 9th of Ab — the anniversary of the destruction of both our Holy Temples in Jerusalem; the occasions in which God finally withdrew His presence and sanctuary from the ugliness and emptiness of our indifference and flattery.
No amount of religiosity can compensate for flawed humanity. Rather, our religious lives must be based on sound philosophy, righteous character, humble spirit and a caring, tender heart. It is only with these qualities that we can truly know and connect with God.
When we become fixated on quanta and keep ourselves from transgression while falling into the lethargy of rote, we risk expressing the ugliness that estranged God from us before Jerusalem’s destruction. By espousing faithfulness, integrity, kindness, love and compassion as indispensable and non-negotiable hallmarks of our religious lives as deeply as we do all of our other commandments, we will genuinely be able to return to God and keep His Torah with true hearts. May we live to see it.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
 There is a difference between simply refraining from action and acting in insincere and selfish ways. While refraining from action when one should act is in itself considered a transgression, (See R. Tsadok haCohen of Lublin’s Tsidkat haTsadik, 1:9) it is less severe than acting in ways that are meant to be loving but are instead found to be selfish and uncaring. Indeed, there are circumstances that, due to one’s circumstantial incapacity to have proper intent while performing a positive commandment, our performance of them becomes restricted. See for example, Berakhot, 17 and Yerushalmi, ibid.
 אין צו אלא לשון זריזות – every ‘command’ means with alacrity. Sifra, Emor, 13:13.
1a Horev and spies (1:1-2:1)
Introduction to Moshe’s speeches (1:1-5);
Leaving Horev (1:6-8); Assistants to Moshe (1:9-18)
Spies and the consequences (1:19-2:1)
1b Do not fight Esav tribes in Seir (2:2-8)
1c Do not fight Moav, cross brook of Zered (2:9-16)
1d Do not fight Ammon; fight Sichon, king of
1e Victories and allotments (2:31-3:22)
Victory over Sichon (2:31-37)
Victory over Og and his cities (3:1-11)
Reuven, Gad and half the tribe of Menashe: land
allotments with conditions (12-20)
Guidance for Yehoshua (21-22)
Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS