This Shabbat before tisha b’av is not the most joyous time in the Jewish calendar. It is called Shabbat Chazon, the first word of the haftara of Isaiah that we will read tomorrow morning, ‘The Vision of Isaiah son of Amotz’, and is one of the three haftarot of admonition that precede Tisha b’Av…

In general, summer is a time for relaxation, barbecues, music or theatre festivals, fireworks and balls on the 14th of July. It is so true that every year it is difficult for us to immerse ourselves in this « period of the so-called ‘nine days of mourning » which precede tisha b’av, in as much as our mind anticipates the light, languid holidays…But this year is different from other years, and we still cannot relax completely. We keep our eyes on the Covid count which keeps climbing, our ears attentive to our President’s ominous ritual televised speeches…

And as if that were not enough, exceptional heat waves and floods have been hitting different parts of the planet for the past month: regions that are accustomed to it and others that are much less so. Stunned by these disasters that have left entire regions devastated by fire, or water, we are also astonished by the statistics on the number of deaths resulting from these ‘natural’ disasters, in addition to those linked to Covid…

According to the sages of the Talmud, a curse is placed on the month of Av, as it is during this period that the Jewish people and, more recently, humanity in general have fallen victim to so many disasters. The month of Av, however, has taken on the name menachem Av – Av the consoling month, because we hope that despite this (superstitious?) curse, the Eternal will take pity on us and console us.

We still have to wait, however. The words of consolation will come only after Tisha b’Av …Isaiah, whom we will read every Shabbat for the next 8 weeks is the first of the biblical prophets, but also the most voluminous . His prophecies cover a period of 200 years, between the middle of the 8th century until the middle of the 6th century. This has led exegetes to speak of 2 Isaiahs, the first of whom is a historical figure who tries unsuccessfully to get the Hebrew sovereigns to listen to his prophecies about their choice of political alliances. The second is a consoling Isaiah who gives hope to his people and predicts the return from the Babylonian exile.

His words this week are particularly harsh. As the spokesman for the Eternal, he ruthlessly rebukes his people and predicts the worst misfortunes: ‘Your land is a waste, your cities burnt down, before your eyes, the yield of your soil is consumed by strangers, a wasteland overthrown by strangers’[1]. Jerusalem is compared to Sodom and Gomorrah. One remains doubtful about the pedagogical effect of such verbal vehemence? Will it have any positive outcome? It seems that the prophet himself doubts this when he says: ‘al mé toukou od?’ translated as ‘why do you seek further beatings?’ This can be interpreted in two ways: is there still room on your (bruised) body to hit you? or will it have any effect to hit you again? [2]   Every educator knows very well that violence, whether verbal or physical, only leads to a vicious cycle of greater violence…so what is the point? Is the spokesman of the Eternal One mistaken? He uses metaphorical and poetic language, but it seems that these words fall on deaf years and he toils in vain. Or perhaps the Hebrew people were not able to hear him and let him rant in vain… God himself, when he invested Isaiah as a prophet, so to speak, predicted that his words would not be heard, a bit like the haftara reading on Saturday morning when the audience sinks into a slight torpor: Let the heart of this people be thickened, hear indeed but do not understand, see, indeed but do not grasp, Dull that people’s mind, stop its years and seal its mind. Lest seeing with its eyes and hearing with its years, it also grasp with its mind, and repent and save itself. [3] It is so difficult and courageous to stand up and firmly share one’s beliefs, which come from the depths of one’s being, and yet in the case of Isaiah…the Eternal himself speaks of the vanity of these words, as if he did not let his people repent.

We might as well use an automatically generated speech, as the scholar Damon Mayaffre did when using Artificial Intelligence, he generated Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy speech for his second term as president in 2022, and it sounded very true![4]

And yet, these prophetic words that have come down to us through the mists of time are probably the ones we should listen to most carefully, not only for their literary beauty, but above all for their denunciation of the hypocrisy, injustice, and lack of ethics of those who ruled then, and who are so similar to those who rule today…

Through these words, which are supposed to shake us to the core of our being, God seeks our presence and too often finds only absence.[5] Most of the time, we turn to him only in desperation to lament, without taking responsibility for our actions, which have led us straight into the disaster of global warming or caused us to encroach on space occupied by wild species with the effects we have all observed. Not everything is attributable to human intervention, but there is that epsilon between a heat wave that happens randomly every x years and the peak that we have experienced in recent weeks, where the hand of humanity has its share of responsibility.

Let’s become again those childlike souls, permeable and sensitive, let’s let the words penetrate us and transform us, let’s listen to what they have to tell us maybe just to save us from our cynicism and indifference and, who knows, have some impact on this world !

Ken Yhie ratzon, shabbat shalom!

[1] Isaiah 1:7 JPS

[2] Isaiah 1:5, commentary by Yeshaya Dalsace

[3] Isaiah 6:10

[4] ‘Macron ou le mystère du verbe’, Damon Mayaffre, 2021, éd. de l’Aube, quoted by JDD May 2 2021, p. 13

[5] From God in search of Man, by 060Abraham Heschel