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Looking Forward, Looking Back: Rosh Chodesh Av

Excerpted from Erica Brown’s In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books 

Day 14: Rosh Hodesh Av

Looking Forward, Looking Back

The Shabbat immediately before Tisha B’Av is referred to as “Shabbat Hazon.” A “hazon” is a vision or prophecy. Usually when we speak of visions we think optimistically about the future. The texts we recall on Shabbat hazon, however, are of doom and devastation. The ancient Israelites are referred to as a brood of evildoers, as depraved children. God bemoans the loss of intimacy between Him and the people.

In this single chapter the destruction of Zion and Jerusalem is predicted. Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned repeatedly; the sense of sin and the difficulty of extricating oneself from it weigh heavily on the reader. But one underlying theme emerges about the nature of the sin that brings about alienation from God: religious piety in place of human justice and equity. God criticizes the bringing of offerings to the Temple, and Holiday times filled with hypocrisy:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense of abomination they are to Me; as for new moons and sabbaths and the calling of assemblies, I cannot bear iniquity along with solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates: they are a trouble to Me; I am weary of enduring them. (Isaiah 1:13–14)

God articulates disgust through the agency of the prophet. Occasions that are traditionally joyous have become burdensome. Why?

The reason for God’s anger is mentioned twice in this chapter: the neglect of widows and orphans. God remands the people: “Devote yourself to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (ibid. 1:17). This strong recommendation is backed up by the reality that greed has blinded people from helping those most vulnerable: “Your rulers are rogues and cronies of thieves, every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts; they do not judge the case of the orphans, and the widow’s cause never reaches them” (ibid. 1:23).

Neglect of widows and orphans is not a new theme in the biblical text. We are admonished in Exodus and Deuteronomy to care for those most vulnerable in our society. What do Isaiah’s strong words add? Isaiah’s point is a legal one. According to Rashi, the prophet is pointing a finger at a justice system where bribes are accepted out of avarice, and those unable to pay – like the widow and orphan – have their cases postponed to a later date. Because the vulnerable are not given top priority in the justice system, they stop using the courts. Now we understand the causative relationship in the verse: “They do not judge the case of the orphans, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.” Because the case of orphans is neglected, the widows never bother to come.

An indictment of a legal system is ultimately an indictment of society. We all have moments when we ignore the urgent needs of those around us. We don’t do it willfully; we assume that someone else will take care of the problem. Growing up in a democracy, we naturally assume that when agreement cannot be reached between people, a government agency will step in and adjudicate. Our tax payers’ dollars will come through; a social service institution or charitable non-profit will pick up the pieces.

In the haftara for Shabbat Hazon, the prophet Isaiah presents a  subtle message about the status of orphans and widows. We must ensure that they get the same legal protections and benefits as everyone else so that they, too, will experience the heft of justice and of an equitable system of law that offers them a fair hearing and a platform for grievance: “Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” Do not call yourself a pious person unless you are part of building a just society. “Though you pray at length,” God says, “I will not listen” (ibid. 1:15). Those who cannot speak kindness and justice cannot be heard in their time of need. There is a language barrier. God will not hear the prayer of those who separate religious obligation from human compassion. The religious world view must encompass both.

Every day presents an opportunity to make our lives more whole, less fragmented, more honest and less compartmentalized. We are all hypocrites in one way or another. We strive to be good but stumble. We aim for consistency but miss the mark. So instead of trying to change the whole world at once, perhaps we can make minute but meaningful steps to promote justice. Small acts of justice are the bricks of any future Mikdash.

Kavana for the Day 

According to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), when we reach heaven at the  end of our lives, God asks us a series of questions. One of them is: Have you worked for the world’s redemption? This doesn’t mean, “did you wait for the Messiah”; it implies that we must actively create the kind of environment where a messiah could exist and flourish, a place endowed with a spirit of compassion and social justice. There is no better way to redeem the neglect of the widow and orphan than by lending a hand towards the most vulnerable in society. Call up a local shelter and volunteer for a few hours. When we call it a shelter, we mean that it is a safe refuge for those who need temporary housing and protection. But ironically, we are often sheltered from the rawness of those who need its services because we live such cushioned lives. The shelter protects them, but distances us. “Un-shelter” yourself by seeing the way the other half lives. It may become a good habit.