This week is the last of the three Shabbats leading up to Tisha b’Av. And yes, this Shabbat is Tisha b’Av, but as we do not fast on Shabbat the observance is moved to Motzei Shabbat (the end of Shabbat). Interestingly, this Shabbat is significant for at least two reasons. First, it is the last of the Three Weeks of Admonition, which leads up to the memorial of the destruction of both Temples, as well as numerous other atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish People throughout the centuries. Second, it sees the unification of the two Torah reading cycles, one followed in Israel and the other in the Diaspora, which have been separated since the end of Unleavened Bread. It should not be a surprise that the memorial of Israel’s greatest experiences of grief is also the time of her unification as a community.
The Torah portion is from Deuteronomy 1.1 – 3.22.[i] “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel across the Jordan,” (Deuteronomy 1.1) serves as an introduction to the first of three discourses delivered by Moshe before bequeathing his position of leadership to Joshua. Much of this first discourse is a historical review, the good times and the bad, of Israel’s wanderings after the deliverance from Egypt.
The Haftarah is from Isaiah 1.1 – 27, the first of Isaiah’s visions of divine judgement or discipline on the His chose people Israel. Isaiah hears the LORD proclaim concerning Israel, “Sons I have raised and brought up, but they have rebelled against Me” (1.2) and “They have abandoned ADONAI. They have despised Israel’s Holy One. They have turned backwards” (1.4). Eventually, the LORD proclaims, “I will turn My hand on you, purge away your dross, and remove all your alloy” (1.25). Rashi notes that “The wicked are referred to as dross because like foreign matter that adulterates silver, evildoers infiltrate the nation and contaminate its moral and spiritual standing.”[ii] Dross, however, is not removed easily or without pain, but by passing through the fires of purification. It is often stated that a loving God would not cause pain and anguish to His chosen ones. However, Job observed, “Should we accept the good from God and not accept the bad?” (Job 2.10). In our daily prayers, at the beginning of the Barchu we recite,
בָּרוּך אַתָּה ׳׳ אְֶלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעוֹלָם, יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁך, עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא אֶת הַכֹּל
Blessed are you LORD our God, King of the Universe,
who forms light and creates darkness,
makes peace and creates all.
This blessing comes from a proclamation made by the LORD through the prophet Isaiah,
I form light and create darkness. I make shalom and create calamity. I, ADONAI, do all these things. (Isaiah 45.7)
How is it possible that a “good” God can “make shalom and create calamity”? It appears to be a dichotomy. However, we find a possible answer in Eichah (Lamentations), which we read on erev Tisha b’Av. Eichah records the prophet Jeremiah’s lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Bnei Israel. In the middle of his lament, we read these well-known words of comfort, “Because of the mercies of ADONAI we will not be consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning! Great is Your faithfulness” (Eichah 3.22 – 23). If we read a bit further there is an equally important assurance, though I doubt it has ever been set to music.
For the LORD will not reject forever. For though He has caused grief, yet He will have compassion, according to His abundant mercies. (Eichah 3.31 – 32)
“Though He has caused grief, He will not reject forever” is a guarantee that both Israel, as well as the grafted-in from the Nations, may also hold tightly. Remember the words of the author to the Hebrews in the Apostolic Writings. In speaking of the discipline of the LORD, the writer states
Now all discipline seems painful at the moment—not joyful. But later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12.11)
In other words, we can either learn from the discipline and have the “fruit of righteousness” germinate and mature in our lives or we can reject the discipline and be broken by it. Jeremiah, in the midst of his proclamation of the LORD’s discipline and judgement, received this promise from the LORD,
For I know the plans that I have in mind for you,” declares Adonai, “plans for shalom and not calamity—to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29.11)
Just as sure as judgement and disciple will come, so will come the deliverance of the LORD to those who seek Him. So here, in the last of the Three Weeks of Admonition, we read the desire of the heart of ADONAI,
“Come now, let us reason together,” says ADONAI. “Though your sins be like scarlet, they will be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they will become like wool. If you are willing and obey, you will eat the good of the land. … Zion will be redeemed with justice, her repentant with righteousness.” (Isaiah 1.18 – 19 & 27)
[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The
Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
[ii] Rabbi Nossom Scherman. The Later Prophets: with a Commentary Anthologized from Rabbinic Writings, Isaiah. Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, 2013, p15