By January 4, 2016 Read More →

Hazon Isaiah, Bryna Jocheved Levy, COJS

I1Most haftarot of the year were selected because they share a thematic connection with each Torah portion (parashah) to which they are appended.  By contrast, those haftarot read during the summer weeks, from the seventeenth of Tammuz until the end of the Jewish calendar year, were chosen primarily on the basis of their link to the events of that period, and only tangentially for their connection to the parshah.

The three haftarot read on the Sabbaths between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av are commonly known as “Haftarot of  Catastrophe  (or Admonition)” (links below), and they are followed by seven “Haftarot of Consolation” for the Sabbaths following Tisha B’Av, leading up to Rosh Hashanah. The Torah portions during these seven weeks are read from the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy, where the central themes include consolation, redemption, and leadership, responsibility to one another, relationship with God, prayer, and hope.

While all haftarot are selections from the books of the prophets (Neviim**), the majority of them are taken from the Book of Isaiah: seventeen, throughout the year! (see table of contents).  Indeed, these seven Haftarot of Consolation are all selections from Isaiah, as is the final one of the three Haftarot of Catastophe (note), which leads into the seven.  Isaiah thus came to be known as the Prophet of Consolation.

[ link:The Hebrew Bible is called the Tanakh**. The acronym refers to the tripartite division Ta=Torah (the five books Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) Na-Neviim (the books of the prophets); and KH= Ketuvim (Haigiogrpha )]


The last Haftarah of Catastrophe, read on the Shabbat immediately prior to Tisha B’Av,  is taken from the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah.  In this triad of reproach, the prophets rebuke the Jewish people for their relentless sin and iniquity.  Ironically, given the chapters of consolation for which he is well-known, it is Isaiah who announces the destruction of the Temple!

The ominous Shabbat on which we read his words is called “Shabbat Hazon” – the Sabbath of Vision. The name is taken from the opening verse of the Book of Isaiah: “The vision (hazon) of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezikiah, kings of Judah.” (link)

The vision that Isaiah portends is dismal, a portrait of moral corruption and societal degeneration, apostasy, and betrayal.


At first glance Isaiah’s doom-saying appears incongruous.  The Sages bestowed the title “Prophet of Catastrophe” on Jeremiah.  Isaiah, they dubbed “Prophet of Consolation.”  Even his name Isaiah (Yeshayahu in Hebrew) means “God will be my Redeemer.”  Furthermore, the first two of the three Haftarot of Catastrophe are taken from the Book of Jeremiah (chapters 1 and 2 respectively).  And Jeremiah does prophesy the Temple’s destruction (chapter 7 cf.).  A third haftarah from the Book of Jeremiah seems singularly appropriate.  Why choose this passage from Isaiah instead?  The answer is leadership.


A careful reading of the haftarot yields the key difference between Jeremiah and Isaiah.  The first chapter of the Book of Jeremiah recounts the prophet’s rite of initiation as a leader. He is informed that he had been consecrated in utero to lead.  In verse 5, God tells Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you, and before you came out of the womb, I sanctified you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  Jeremiah’s response is telling, however.  He says, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a child” (v. 6).  The man is utterly overwhelmed by the challenges of leadership.  God needs to reassure the budding prophet that he will be accompanied by the Divine, protected from adversity by the Divine, and speak the prophetic words placed in his mouth by God (v. 7-8).

By contrast, Isaiah’s accepts the challenge of leadership, though it means he will bring rebuke to Israel.  The chapter that presents his rite of initiation to prophecy is (chapter 6, the haftarah of Parshat Yitro), opens with a portrait of evil and corruption.  Undaunted, Isaiah accepts God’s charge eagerly, declaring: “Here I am. Send me!” (6:8).  Where Jeremiah expressed reluctance and his sense of be being overwhelmed by his task, Isaiah does not hesitate.


The significance of leadership extends beyond the prophets’ enthusiasm for their roles.  Jeremiah stresses the disastrous pitfalls of faulty leadership in chapter 2, the second Haftarah of Catastrophe.  He accuses the Jewish people of betrayal, criticizing them for despising God’s ongoing providence and protection.  He then censures the priests, teachers, kings, and prophets with the words of God:

The priests never asked themselves, “Where is the Lord?” The guardians of Torah ignored Me; the rulers rebelled against Me, And the prophets prophesied by Baal and followed what can do no good. (Jer. 2:8)

Jeremiah is aghast at the folly and futility of the people’s actions. He bewails the people abandoning of God, and their recourse to pagan deities for help.  Yet, it is the leaders whom Jeremiah accuses of having steered the people wrong.  They bear the brunt of his rebuke.

Isaiah’s opening rebuke, in the first chapter of the book that bears his name that is read as the third Haftarah of Catastrophe, lambasts the leadership as having plummeted to an all-time low.  He also turns to the people of Jerusalem and scathingly condemns their actions in the harshest of terms.  That is, he includes the people of Israel in his tirade.  He refers to the leaders as “chieftains of Sodom,” and to nation as “people of Gomorrah.”  Few need explanation to grasp the allusion to the paradigmatic cities of evil, reduced to fire and brimstone to purge their wickedness from the earth.  This first chapter of Isaiah is therefore the culmination of the admonition:

Alas, she has become a harlot,

The faithful city,

That was filled with justice

Where righteousness dwelt –

But now murderers

Your silver has turned to dross

Your wine is cut with water

Your rulers are rogues

And cronies of thieves,

Everyone avid for presents

And greedy for gifts,

They do not judge the case of the orphan,

And the widow’s cause never reaches them. (22-23)


Yet all is not lost. In order to restore Jerusalem and the Land of Israel we need honest and upright leaders. The haftarah ends with Isaiah’s optimistic and uplifting vision of a brighter future:

I will restore your magistrates as of old,

And your counselors as of yore.

After that you shall be called

City of Righteousness, Faithful City.

Zion shall be saved through judgment

And her repentant ones through charity. (Isaiah 1:26-27).


The Book of Isaiah begins with a list of the kings who reigned during Isaiah’s career as a prophet: Uzziah (783-742), Jotham [742-735], Ahaz (735-716), and Hezekiah (715-687), kings of Judah.  The reader of our haftarah surely wonders when during this period did the prophet deliver his tirade.  Historians and biblical interpreters have found the year hard to pinpoint.

A beautiful lesson, found in Pesikta d’Rav Kahana (16:10), suggests that the year is incidental:

Your God has spoken, “Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa expounded: The people of Israel asked Isaiah, “Tell us, have you come to comfort only the generation in whose time the Temple was destroyed”? To which Isaiah responded, “I have come to comfort all the generations.”

The great Spanish commentator, philosopher, statesman, and leader Don Isaac Abarbanel suggests that chapter 6 also explains why Isaiah’s words are chosen to conclude the Haftarot of Catastrophe.  We meet Isaiah as a man of initiative, courage, and strength in the face of adversity.  Thus, he is the prophet whose words are needed at this tense time.  The inherent message in his rebuke is that even in the throes of the darkest hour, one may be brave and overcome. He makes the point explicit in the message of consolation at the end of the haftarah.  Isaiah’s immortal words, both rebuke and consolation, resonate for all times.  It is this combination that makes his leadership not only powerful, but paradigmatic for us all.

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