Some people call it Shabbat Katan, the ‘little’ or ‘diminished Shabbat’, but it’s more often known as Shabbat Chazon, ‘the Shabbat of the vision’. It’s not exactly a happy vision, though: Isaiah spells out what a society looks like when it ignores God’s demand for justice. The contemporary relevance of his warning is painfully explored in Noah Yuval Harari’s reflection from last week’s Haaretz (please note, this article is behind a paywall).
Isaiah’s prophecies make a challenging start to the week which includes Tishah B’Av, the 25 hour fast when we read Lamentations and recall the sacking of both temples in Jerusalem, the Crusades, expulsions and pogroms which have marked our fate.
What’s the point of remembering destruction? I don’t think the reason is to create a culture of victimhood, despite the fact that the Jewish People has, over millennia, so often been a victim of hatred, contempt and persecution. Despite this, Judaism has through thick and thin courageously maintained an ethos of responsibility and positive commitment. Therefore I believe the purpose is to look destruction and its horrors in the face and determine to do our utmost not to allow the world to be that way anymore.
I can’t help seeing Lamentations in double-vision. We read: starving children cry out to starving mothers, ‘Where are corn and wine?’ I think of the desolate alleys of a burnt-out Jerusalem where no one has the power to hold back the Babylonian soldiers any longer. Then I see pictures of Yemen, Somalia, and more. We read of the ruin of cities, and I see Mariupol, Bucha, and more.
Where is God amidst all this tragedy and evil? the rabbis asked, and continue to ask, over and again. Why does God let such things happen?
A famous Midrash imagines God summoning the ministering angels. God asks them: ‘What do human sovereigns do when a child of theirs has died?’ The angels answer: ‘They draw down the blinds, tear their garments and sit on the ground and weep.’ ‘Then I’ll shut up the heavens in darkness and do the same,’ says God.
Admittedly, this Midrash doesn’t answer the question of why God allows evil to happen. Instead, it speaks of a God who cries with us in every sorrow and whose tears fall with ours at every act of wanton destruction. It tells of a God who says, ‘It pains me terribly that my world should be like this.’ It depicts a God who suffers alongside humanity, and who therefore hopes and aspires alongside us too. It speaks of a God who says, ‘Let’s change the world, you and I.’
That, to my mind, is the point of remembering destruction: so that we determine to do our utmost for life in whatever field or manner lies within our power; so that we take into our hearts the presence of a God who weeps when life is squandered because God, too, loves life; so that we know and remember that this is what God wants of us most of all.
That’s why we hold that the Messiah is born on Tisha B’Av, and why it is the Sephardi custom to sweep our homes from midday on to make ready for the Messiah’s coming: Tisha B’Av is, strangely and paradoxically, the birthday of hope and determination.
That’s why, despite the fact that feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness often haunt me, I’m going to try to brush out of my spirit those thoughts of ‘can’t!’, ‘why bother?’, and ‘what’s the point?’
It’s why I’m determined to say, including to myself: If you can help one person, do it! If you can plant one tree, do so! If you can make one refugee, whom no one seems to want, feel wanted, do it! If you can let the wild flowers bloom that feed the insects that feed the birds, go and rejoice in them! ‘Kumah! Get up!’ we tell God whenever in our services we return the Torah scroll to the holy ark. I imagine God replying: ‘Yes, but you get up too. Get up, and I’ll get up with you. Care for my world, and I’ll care with you. Nurture one child, just one living thing, and I’ll be there right with you, in your heart and in your hands.’
Click here to listen to Rabbi Jonathan on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on Thursday 20 July.