Rabbi Pinchas Frankel: The Third Haftarah of Punishment (2001)

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Hard upon us is the Fast of Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year.  The day is called that because on it fell the Disaster of the “Meraglim,” the Spies who betrayed HaShem and the Land of Israel, on the verge of the Jewish People’s entry into the Holy Land. 

The Third Haftarah of Punishment

By Rabbi Pinchas Frankel

Haftarah of Parshat Devarim – 5760 ; “Gimmel DePuranita” – Third Haftarah of Punishment ; “Chazon Yeshayahu” – The Vision of Yeshayahu  

This week, Ashkenazim and Sefardim both read, for the Third Haftarah of Punishment from the Book of Yeshayahu, beginning with Chapter 1, from the beginning through (and including) Verse 27.


The week just ended contained Rosh Chodesh Av, that marked the beginning of the “Nine Days.”  Hard upon us is the Fast of Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year.  The day is called that because on it fell the Disaster of the “Meraglim,” the Spies who betrayed HaShem and the Land of Israel, on the verge of the Jewish People’s entry into the Holy Land.

On that day fell also the destruction of both of the Holy Temples built by our People, the  First by the Babylonians, the Second by the Romans, that had together stood for some one thousand years.  Later, there came also the destruction of many Torah  communities during the frightful Period of the Crusades, the Expulsion of the entire  Jewish Community by the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492, and tragedies on and on.

It was on that very day that Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, where he was to discover America, thus opening a new pathway for the Jewish People in the Exile,  It is also the day that is destined, according to Jewish Tradition, to become one of the happiest of the Jewish year, at the time of the Mashiach, May he arrive soon and in our days.

The Haftarah

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Chazon” after the beginning of the Haftarah, “Chazon Yeshayahu ben Amotz,” the “Vision of Yeshayahu, the son of Amotz.”  RASHI explains the word “Chazon,” Vision, as the hardest, the most stringent of words introducing a prophetic message to a People, such as “Masa,” Burden, “Dvar HaShem,” the Word of HaShem, etc.

It is chanted to the same haunting melody as is “Megilat Eichah,” the Scroll of Lamentations written by the Prophet Yirmiyahu, who was an “eye-witness” to the Destruction.  Yeshayahu was an “eye-witness” as well, but only in the mind’s eye of his prophetic vision.  In the external reality, it hadn’t yet happened.  It still could have been averted, if only the People would have repented.

The Haftarah begins by the dating of Yeshayahu as having prophesied during the reigns of the following four Kings of Yehudah:  Uzziah, Yotam, Achaz and Yechizkiyahu.  CHAZAL say that his period of prophecy entered as well into the reign of King Menashe, and this fact would have been recorded had not Menashe killed the Prophet.

Menashe said to Yeshayahu, “Does it not say in the Torah ‘Man cannot see Me  and live’ (Shemot 33:20); yet you said, ‘And I saw HaShem sitting on His Throne, Awesome and Terrifying.’ “  In his “zeal” for the Torah, King Menashe made sure that HaShem’s cautionary response to Moshe in Shemot, concerning not living, was fulfilled.

Yeshayahu (1:2)
“Hear, O heavens and give ear, O earth,
For HaShem has spoken;
Though I brought up and raised My children,
They have rebelled against me.”

RASHI and many others have asked, why it is that Yeshayahu reversed Moshe’s language, in which he also called heaven and earth as witnesses against the People of Israel by saying,

“Give ear O heavens, and I will speak;
And let the earth hear the words of my mouth.” (Devarim 32:1)

One of the answers given is that Moshe, called the “Man of G-d,” was, as it were, closer to the heavens, so “give ear” was more appropriate for the heavens, while Yeshayahu was closer to the earth; therefore, for him, “give ear” was more appropriate for the earth.

Another thought on this verse is that the word Yeshayahu used for “rebelled” has particular applicability to a “shomer,” one who is retained by another to “guard” an object of value for its owner.  HaShem charged the Jewish People with the task of guarding a “precious object;” namely, the Torah; and they were guilty of  “p’shia,” irresponsible negligence in the fulfillment of their task.

Yeshayahu (1:3)

“The ox knows its owner,
And the donkey its owner’s trough;
But Israel does not know,

My People does not understand.”

The ox and the donkey are not subject to “reward and punishment;” yet, they perform their appointed tasks unquestioningly.  But the People of Israel, who know or should know full well that they will be rewarded if they follow the Laws of the Torah, and will be punished if they don’t, refuse to obey the Commandments of My Torah. (RASHI)

Yeshayahu (1:4)

“Woe unto the sinful nation,
A People carrying a heavy burden of sin,
A sinful seed, children who became corrupt;
They have left HaShem,
Rejected the Holy One of Israel,
They have turned away, and continue to move backwards.”

The contrast is awful.  Once they were called a “holy nation;” and they became a “sinful nation.”  Once a “holy nation;” now become a “nation burdened with sin.”  Once they were called a “seed blessed by HaShem;” now they are called a “sinful seed.”  Once  called “children of the Living G-d;” now they are called “children who have become corrupt.” (Metzudat David)

Yeshayahu (1:5-6)

An extended metaphor of wounds, pus and infection from head to toe, depicting the moral state of the Jewish People:

“…neither treated with oil.”

RASHI, based on Targum Yonatan: …without the slightest “hirhur Teshuvah,” thought of Repentance;

As a result,

Yeshayahu (1:7-8)

“Your country is desolate,
Your cities are burned with fire;
Your land, strangers devour it in your presence,
And it is desolate; overthrown by strangers.”

“And the Daughter of Zion is left,
As a watchman’s booth in a (harvested) vineyard,
As a watchman’s hut in a (harvested) garden of melons,
As a besieger’s post after a siege.”

Yeshayahu (1:9)

“Were it not for the L-rd of Hosts,
Who left only a remnant,
We would have been like Sodom;
We would have been like Amorah.”

But it is still before the Destruction.  The last verse is “what might happen very soon” if disaster is not averted by Repentance.

“I beg of you,” the Prophet says,

Yeshayahu (1:10)

“Listen to the Word of G-d,
Princes of Sodom,
Give ear to the Torah of our G-d,
Nation of Amorah!”

The next five verses are like hammer blows delivering the message that without Repentance, without “Return” of the heart and the soul, all Ritual and all forms of Sacrificial Worship are meaningless.

Yeshayahu (1:11-15)

“For what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?
…I am full of the burnt offerings…
…And I delight not in the blood…”

The entire purpose of Sacrifices is to bring a person to Confession and Repentance.  If you refuse to do “Teshuvah,” I do not want your sacrifices.  (Metzudat David)

“When you come to appear before Me
Who asked this of you,…
To trample My courts?”

Since our “hearts,” as it were, are far apart, you are an unwelcome guest in My House. (RASHI)

“Cease bringing false offerings,
Incense that is an abomination;
New Moons and all your Holidays –
I cannot endure the combination of sin and ritual.”

You suffer from the illusion that it is possible that it is possible to worship HaShem and false gods simultaneously.  As Eliyahu HaNavi said to the People, “If Hashem is the true G-d, then worship Him, and if the Baal is, then worship him.”  The evil thoughts that are in your heart when you cross my threshold make your worship an insufferable contradiction! (RASHI)

“Your New Moons and Holidays
My soul hates;
They are a burden unto me…”

I have forgiven you so many times; when you come on your New Moons and Holidays asking for additional atonement, it is finally too much! (RADAK)

“And when you extend your hands to Me in Prayer,
I will hide My eyes from you,…
Your hands are full of blood!”

When you extend your hands to me in Prayer, I cannot accept your prayers, because yours are the bloody hands of murderers!  (Metzudat David)

The Prophet presents a ten-point program of “Behavior Modification Therapy” (RASHI: corresponding to the Ten Days of Teshuvah, and corresponding to the ten verses that comprise each of the Prayers “Malchiyot, Zichronot, V’Shofarot,” “Kingliness, Remembrances, and Soundings of the Shofar,” three prayers embedded in a Shemoneh Esrayof Rosh HaShanah):

Yeshayahu (1:16-18)

“WASH yourselves;
PURIFY yourselves;

“LEARN to do Good;
SEEK Justice
RELIEVE the oppressed;
JUDGE the orphan;
TAKE UP the cause of the widow.”
“COME, LET US REASON together,

Says HaShem,
And if your sins are as scarlet,
They will become white as snow;
Though they be red as crimson,
They will be made white as wool.”

“Choose now,” says Yeshayahu, between two simple alternatives, “Eat or be eaten:”

Yeshayahu (1:19-20)

“If you are willing and obedient,
You shall eat the good of the Land.”

“But if you refuse and rebel,
You shall be devoured by the sword,
For the L-rd has spoken.”

The Trial

A Heavenly Trial begins, with the ground rules spelled out by Rabbi Elazar HaKappar in Pirkei Avot (4:29):

“…the living will be judged – in order that they know, teach, and become aware that He is Almighty; He is the One Who Forms, He is the Creator;  He is the One Who Understands, He is the Judge, He is the Witness, He is the Litigant, He will ultimately Render the Verdict; Blessed is He, before Whom there is no iniquity, no forgetfulness, no favoritism, and no acceptance of bribes, for Everything is His.  And Know, that everything is according to the reckoning…”

The Prosecuting Attorney (that courtroom player wasn’t specified in the ground rules, unless it was the “One Who Understands”), with Yeshayahu using language that will be borrowed by Yirmiyahu in Megilat Eichah:

Yeshayahu (1:21)

“HOW is the Faithful City become a harlot?
Full of Justice,
Righteousness would spend the night;
And now, MURDERERS!”

What did Yeshayahu mean by Righteousness spending the night in Yerushalayim?  Let me mention two explanations from RASHI:

The “Tamid shel Shachar,” the Daily Morning Sacrifice, would atone for sins committed during the night and the “Tamid shel Bain HaArbayim,” the Daily Evening (or Twilight) Sacrifice would atone for sins committed during the day.

In a capital case, when the “Bet Din,” the Court, did not find any basis for acquittal, they would not act to impose the death penalty, but would let the case “rest overnight;” perhaps one of the Judges would think of a reason for acquittal.

(A third explanation, not found in RASHI, might be this:

We find in Megilat Ruth that Boaz says to Ruth, “Rest overnight;” – This was part of the story of the Redemption of the fields of Machlon and Kilyon, and of Ruth the Moabitess.  Ruth would go on to become an ancestress of King David, who purchased Yerushalayim, and whose son built the Holy Temple there, that became a resting place for the Divine Presence.)

But now, the spirit of the City is not one of saving life, but of Murder, the wanton destruction of human life.

Yeshayahu (1:22)

“You would use fraudulent money,
Made of brass, but plated with silver;
You would dilute your wine with water
To fool the buyers.”

Yeshayahu (1:23)

“Your princes are rebellious,
And companions of thieves;
Everyone loves bribes,
And runs after illegitimate payments;
They do not judge the orphan,
Nor does the case of the widow come before them!”
The People of Israel, knowing that the charges are true, has nothing to say
in response.

The “Judge” pronounces the verdict:

Yeshayahu (1:24-27)

“Therefore, says the Master,
The L-rd of Hosts,
The Mighty One of Israel;
‘Hoy!, I will relieve Myself of My oppressors,
And I will be avenged Against My enemies.’ “

“I will pass My Hand over you,
Time after time,
And purge your dross as with lye,
And take away all your false plating.”

(Here there is an important transition in meaning, marked by a transition in the way the Haftarah is chanted, from the melody of Eichah to the normal Haftarah melody)

“And I will return your Judges as at the beginning,
And your Advisors as at the first,
Afterward, you will be called the City of Righteousness,
The Faithful City.”

“Zion will be redeemed in Justice,
And those who repent,
Will be redeemed in Righteousness.”

A question arises:

This is supposed to be a “Haftarah of Punishment.”  Why is it that we stop on a positive note?  After all, the very next verse in Yeshayahu, not included in the Haftarah, returns to the theme of punishment!

The answer may be that even in a “Haftarah of Punishment,” CHAZAL did not want to emphasize the punishment aspect or rather, they didn’t want “punishment” to have the last word.  For if so, what would be the purpose of the whole exercise?

If the Symphony of the History of Israel would not end on a note of triumph, what would have been the purpose of the composition?  Rather, the purpose of “Puranut,” of Divine Punishment itself, is “Nechama,” Consolation.  Just as the punishment administered by a parent to a child is meant for the improvement of the child, the punishment of our  People should be seen as an attempt by “Avinu She-BaShamayim,” Our Father in  Heaven, to improve us and move us along the Path to the Coming of the Mashiach.

Rabbi Pinchas Frankel

Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU