This week, right after the Sabbath, comes the fast of the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, commemorating the devastation of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple, by Babylonia in 586 BCE, and again by Rome in 70 CE.
The sorrowful day features the reading of the biblical book of Lamentations. In Jewish tradition, segments of scripture are named for their first distinctive words, and so Lamentations in Hebrew is called "Eicha" - literally, the book of "How" - "How does the city sit solitary that was full of people, how is she become like a widow" (Lamentations 1:1).
The traditional cycle of Torah readings and the Jewish calendar conspire to ensure that we always begin the book of Deuteronomy on the Sabbath just before the 9th of Av - and so, on this unusually mournful of Sabbaths, we always hear another "How" - Moses despairing, "How can I bear alone your strife and your cumbrance and your bickering?" (Deuteronomy 1:21)
In traditional Jewish thought, these two hows are closely related to one another. For all that enemies from without wreak the devastation, Jerusalem ultimately is destroyed, in the understanding of classical rabbinic tradition, because of baseless hatred among Jerusalemites, because of factional strife and enmity within the nation.
How to recover from such hows?
The prophetic reading paired with the start of Deuteronomy suggests a way - and, in fact, quite poignantly, this entire, doleful Sabbath is not named in the usual manner, for the first distinctive word of its reading from the Torah, but rather for the first word of its prophetic reading. This is Shabbat Chazon - literally, the Sabbath of Vision - "The vision of Isaiah son of Amotz, which he envisioned concerning Judah and Jerusalem..." (Isaiah 1:1). And, after some of the harshest rebukes in all of scripture (Isaiah 1:1-15), the prophet relays this divine invitation:
"Come, and let us have it out, says the Eternal One - though your sins be as scarlet, they shall become as white as snow, though they be red as dye, they shall be as wool" (Isaiah 1:18).
"Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Aid the oppressed. Protect the orphan. Defend the widow" (Isaiah 1:16-17). (If you are looking for biblical values, there they are.)
"If then you are desirous of this and heed," says the prophet in the divine name, "you shall feast on the best bounty of the land; but if you refuse and spurn, you shall be consumed by the sword, for the mouth of the Eternal One has spoken" (Isaiah 1:19-20).
And then, after that glimpse of possibility, the vision turns from redemption and darkens into yet another mournful "How" -
"How is the faithful city become a prostitute - it was full of justice, righteousness lodged in it, but now murderers. Your silver is become dross. Your wine is cut with water. Your rulers are rogues and companions of thieves. Every one loves bribery and chases after rewards. They do not judge for the orphan, and the cause of the widow never comes before them." (Isaiah 1:21)
It might have been fitting, says another ancient rabbinic teaching associated with the start of Deuteronomy, for the rebukes to have been spoken by Balaam [the foreign prophet who was featured several readings ago, back in the book of Numbers] and for the blessings uttered by Balaam to have been spoken by Moses. But, had Balaam spoken the rebukes, the teaching continues, Israel might have said, 'It is our enemy who rebukes us.' And had Moses spoken only blessings, the nations of the world might have said, 'It is their lover who blesses them,' and both might have been discounted. Therefore, the teaching concludes, it was ordained that Balaam, the enemy, speak blessings and that Moses, the lover, speak rebukes - so that the blessings and the rebukes both could resound clearly in their being delivered to Israel.
In this season of strife here, within this country, when one candidate for the highest office goes so far as to intimate that the other, or her judicial nominees, might be eliminated by way of the right of the people to bear arms - when a proponent of that candidate says that the other party prevails in elections because "Americans are being outvoted by foreigners" - and when proponents of the other candidate in turn look upon the broad swaths of the populace desperate enough to defend and excuse such bluster in their champions with incomprehension and dissociation spilling easily into derision and even hatred of fellow countrymen - Moses', and Isaiah's and indeed the Eternal One's words, as recounted by scripture, ring all too truly.
This is how a nation is weakened to the point of fatal vulnerability and self destruction.
One waits for the voice with sufficient prophetic force to say efficaciously, Enough.
Meanwhile - since the fast of the 9th of Av is a time of dirges and mournful chants, and since I cannot express the sorrow and the urgency any better in the English language - Isaiah's parable of the vineyard (Isaiah 5) as translated in the soulful and lamenting voice of Sinead O'Connor
If you had a vineyard
On a fruitful hill
And you fenced it and cleared it
Of all stones until
You planted it
With the choicest of vine
And you even built a tower
And a press to make wine
And you looked that it would bring forth sweet grapes
And it gave only wild grapes
What would you say
Jerusalem and Judah
You be the judges I pray
Between me and my vineyard
This is what God says
What more could I have done in it
That I did not do in it
Why when I ask it for sweetness
It brings only bitterness
For the vineyard of the lord of hosts
Is the house of Israel
And the men of Judah
His pleasant plant
And he looks for justice but beholds oppression
And he hopes for equality but hears a cry
Jerusalem and Judah
This is god's reply
Sadness will come
To those who build house to house
And lay field to field 'til there's room
For none but you to dwell in the land
And sadness will come
To those who call evil good
And good evil who present
Darkness as light
And light as darkness
Who present as sweetness
Only the things which are bitterness
Oh that my eyes were a fountain of tears
That I might weep for my poor people
For every boot stamped with fierceness
For every cloak rolled in blood
Jerusalem and Judah
I'd cry if I could