Shabbat Chazon: To See and Be Seen
Haftarat Devarim, Isaiah 1:1–27
Rabbi Isaac S. Roussel, Congregation Zera Avraham
This week is Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision. It is called this because the haftarah reading on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av is always from Isaiah 1, which begins “The vision [chazon] of Isaiah son of Amoz . . .” In this passage God accuses Israel of just going through the motions. They are living their lives far from Hashem and steeped in wrongdoing, but are expecting him to accept their acts of devotion. He will have none of it.
Shabbat Chazon is also sometimes called the Black Sabbath, because it precedes the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.
The Torah states that all males must appear before God three times a year for the pilgrimage festivals (Exod 23:17). The Talmud, however, rules that one who is blind in one or both eyes is not obligated to appear (b.Chagigah 5b). The rationale is that the mitzvah, or command, to appear before God uses the word yera’eh, which means “will appear.” But, since the Hebrew text does not contain vowels, this word could also be read as yireh, meaning “will see.” Since a blind or partially blind person cannot fully see, he is exempt from this mitzvah.
This Talmudic discussion highlights what all the mitzvot are about. They are a means to be seen by God and to see God. And this is something that we can pursue in our daily life.
Rabbi Eleazar Azriki (1533–1600) wrote about this Talmudic discussion in his book Sefer Haredim, saying, “For the majority of people this will mean at the three pilgrimage festivals . . . but to those who are wise it means every day and always, at every moment and in every place that they want to see God and have his gaze upon them.”
But the mitzvot must be performed with kavanah (focus and intention). We cannot just go through the motions as Israel is accused of doing in our haftarah reading.
When we daven, say a barucha, study Torah, or commit a loving act with kavanah, we expose ourselves to Hashem. We appear before him. But he also appears to us in these acts. As Abraham Joshua Heschel states, a mitzvah is a sacrament and an act of communion. He writes,
A mitzvah is an act which God and man have in common. . . . Their fulfillment is not valued as an act performed in spite of “the evil drive” but as an act of communion with Him. The spirit of mitzvah is togetherness. . . . He is a partner to our act. (God in Search of Man, emphases mine)
The Chasidic rabbis related the word mitzvah to the Aramaic word tzavta, which means attachment or companionship. When we perform mitzvot with intention, we are attaching ourselves to Hashem.
The opening meditation of the Amidah highlights the communion that is within a mitzvah act. We say, “Open my lips, Adonai, and I will declare your praise.” This expresses the partnership that is involved in prayer (and in any mitzvah).
The early Church Fathers used the term perichoresis, which is sometimes simply called “the divine dance,” to describe the communion of mutual blessing that exists within the Godhead. We are invited into that communion. We enter it when we perform the mitzvot with kavanah. And we invite others in when we include them in our acts of devotion and deeds of compassion and care.
But when we do these acts without kavanah we are worthy of the same rebuke that God gives Israel in our haftarah reading. “An ox recognizes its owner, a donkey recognizes where its owner puts its food; but Israel does not recognize me” (Isa 1:3). They bring sacrifices and go through the ritual acts, but forget that these mean nothing without deeds of justice. Israel in her blindness thinks that she can bring these sacrifices and appease God, while living lives far from him. They are not “appearing before God” and he does not “see” them; he “looks the other way” (1:15). There is no communion. There is no sacramental event.
Our Talmudic discussion continues by telling us that when Rav Huna encountered the words of Exodus 23:17 he wept and quoted a verse that appears in this week’s haftarah. He cried, “Can it happen to a slave whose master expects to see him, that the master will eventually distance himself from him and not want him anymore? For it is written: ‘That you come to appear before Me—who asked this of you, who trample My courts?’” (Isa 1:12).
If we “trample” God’s courts by just going through the motions as Israel did, then we will neither be seen by him nor see him. We will have no communion, no connection.
Today can be Shabbat Chazon or Black Shabbat—a day of vision and seeing, or a day of darkness and blindness.
May we all renew our devotion and kavanah in the performance of the mitzvot.
May we see it as a means to greater connection to and communion with Hashem.
May we join the divine dance.
And thereby we will see and be seen.
This year, Tisha B’av is commemorated on Sunday, July 22, which is the tenth of Av. The ninth of Av, Tisha B’av, falls on Shabbat, when it is not appropriate to fast and mourn, so it is delayed one day.