Heads and Tails

The vision (chazon) of Yishayahu, the son of Amotz, who had a vision concerning Yehudah and Yerushalayim, in the days of Yatom, Achaz, and Yechizkiyahu – the kings of Yehudah. (Sefer Yishayahu 1:1) 

I. Shabbat Chazon and its Haftarah

The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Chazon. The name is derived from the Shabbat’s Haftarah – the reading from the Prophets. We read the first chapter of the Sefer Yeshayahu— Isiah. The Haftarah describes a prophetic vision – a chazon – of the prophet. 

The Haftarah is assigned to this Shabbat as an introduction to the observance of Tisha B’Av. However, also, it has a connection to Parshat Devarim. The parasha introduces Moshe’s final address to the nation. Like the prophet in the Haftarah, his messages include a rebuke of the nation. 

Woe to a sinful nation, a people heavy with iniquity, evildoing seed, corrupt children. They forsook Hashem; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backward. (Sefer Yishayahu 1:4)

II. The Churban and disrespect for Torah scholars

In the above passage, the prophet Yishayahu strongly rebukes the Jewish people. This and his other rebukes were not effective. They did not persuade the people to change their behavior and they did not prevent the Churban – the destruction of the First Temple – and the subsequent exile. 

The Talmud, in Mesechet Shabbat, discusses the causes of the Churban. The Sages propose various sins that explain Hashem turning His back on His Bait HaMikdash – Sacred Temple and His people. Ribbi Yehudah suggests:

Yerushalayim was destroyed only because they dishonored the Torah scholars in it. [This is] as it says: But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised His words and scoffed His prophets, until the Lord's wrath ascended upon His people beyond remedy. (Divrei HaYamim II, 36:16) What is the meaning of “beyond remedy”? Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: Anyone who dishonors Torah scholars has no remedy for his wound. (Mesechet Shabbat 119:b)

The Talmud’s dialogue is difficult to understand. Ribbi Yehudah suggests that the Churban was caused by the disrespect shown to Torah scholars. He cites a passage from Divrei HaYamim – Chronicles – to support his position. The passage describes the people mocking Hashem’s messengers and scoffing at His prophets. It explains that this brought upon the people Hashem’s wrath. The passage ends with the phrase “beyond remedy.” The Talmud asks, “What is the meaning of this phrase?” It responds that the phrase teaches that one who dishonors Torah scholars has no remedy for his wound. What does this answer add? It seems to be only a reiteration of the phrase in the passage. 

III. The theme of rebuke

Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk – the Ohr Sameach[1] – explains that the Talmud’s dialogue is understood when its context is considered. Immediately preceding this dialogue another explanation for the Churban is offered:

Rav Amram … said … Yerushalayim was destroyed only because they did not [engage in] rebuke with one another. [This is] as it says: Her princes were like harts who did not find pasture. (Megilat Eichah 1:6) Just as a hart [travels] with its head at the side of the [hart that precedes it], so too, the Israelites of that generation. They placed their heads to the ground and did not engage in rebuke with one another. (Mesechet Shabbat 119:b)

Ohr Sameach explains that Ribbi Yehudah’s comments are a continuation of the theme introduced by Rav Amram. Both attribute the destruction of Yerushalayim to the failure of the people to respond to rebuke. 

Now, the Talmud’s dialogue surrounding Ribi Yehudah’s comments makes sense. What is the meaning of “beyond remedy”? One who dishonors Torah scholars has no remedy for his wound. The message of the response is that the generation of the Churban committed numerous sins. These sins were not the cause of their downfall. They were “wounds” but wounds have a “remedy” – repentance. One sin of the generation placed all other sins beyond remedy. This singular sin was the generation’s degradation and denigration of its Torah scholars. How did this sin place all others beyond remedy?

Repentance is initiated when a person or community recognizes that its behavior is improper. This recognition is often achieved through rebuke. The generation of the Churban neutralized the rebukes of its Torah scholars. Through its dishonor of these scholars, they deprived them of their moral and ethical authority. Without that status of authority, their rebukes were easily ignored. 

IV. Two forms of rebuke

Ohr Sameach raises another issue. Both Ribbi Yehudah and Rav Amram attribute the downfall of the generation of the Churban to the absence of effective rebuke. Are these two Sages communicating the same message using different words or is there a difference in their messages?

He responds that there are two forms of rebuke. One form is the rebuke of an authority. The other is the rebuke of a peer. These two forms differ in the source of the rebuke and their method. A peer does not rebuke with words. A person is not recognized among peers as an authority. A person cannot effectively speak with moral authority to those who view themselves as his or her equal. Instead, the most effective rebuke of a peer is given through example. A person observes a friend who struggles to make a living and a large family to support. Yet, despite this person’s very pressing needs and responsibilities, he conducts his business affairs with meticulous honesty. He has opportunities to ease his financial stress through slight dishonesties, but he consistently acts with complete and perfect integrity. His friends, who are much better-off financially, observe their peer’s behavior and reason with themselves. My friend is desperately in need. Yet, he conducts his affairs with perfect honesty. Do I have any excuse for my lapses in ethics? 

An authority’s most effective method for delivering rebuke is not through actions. An authority – a Torah scholar or a tzadik – is expected to conduct himself with perfect righteousness. More common people observe his impeccable behavior and say to themselves, “He’s a tzadik. I am just a normal person. I cannot be expected to conduct myself at his standards.” How does this Torah scholar or tzadik deliver rebuke? He must formulate and present an argument. He must craft a message that penetrates the heart of the sinner and moves him or her to repent. 

V. Inspiring one another

Rav Amram and Ribbi Yehudah each discuss one of these forms of rebuke. As explained above, Ribbi Yehudah is discussing the rebuke of the Torah scholar and he explains how the generation of the Churban neutralized it. Ohr Sameach explains that careful consideration of Rav Amram’s words reveals that he is discussing the rebuke of peers and how also this form of rebuke was nullified by the generation of the Churban. Let us consider his analysis of Rav Amram’s comments.  

Two aspects of Amram’s comments are odd. First, he describes the Israelites of the generation traveling like harts. One hart places his head behind the tail of the preceding one. What does Rav Amram intend to communicate with this image? Second, he describes the people as not engaging one another in rebuke. Why did he not simply describe them as not rebuking one another?[2]

Ohr Sameach explains that Rav Amram does not say that they did not rebuke one another because it does not describe their failing. That phrase suggests that they did not direct rebuke toward one another; they did not chastise one another. Instead, Rav Amram said that they did not engage one another in rebuke. He uses this phrase because he is describing the rebuke provided by peers. This rebuke is not verbal and not directed by one peer to another. Instead, the rebuke emerges from the interaction between the community’s members. Peers rebuke through modeling proper behavior. Each person learns from his or her friend. Each models some aspect of exceptional behavior that impresses and inspires other members of the group. This dynamic he describes as engaging with one another in rebuke. 

VI. Undermining one another

For this dynamic to assert itself, members of the group must focus upon each other’s positive behaviors. What happens if instead of being inspired by one another’s outstanding behaviors, the members of the community seek out each other’s failings? One person justifies his of her failings by confirming that the other members of the community are equally or more flawed. Rav Amram describes this as each hart or person following his or her peer’s behind. Then, each member of the community becomes his or her neighbors’ excuse for sin.[3] 

Rav Amram and Ribbi Yehudah describe a community that is closed to repentance. Members blindly follow the mob. They do not consider whether the behaviors they emulate are positive or negative. They just place their heads behind the rear of their peer. Ethical leaders – Torah scholars and even prophets – who offer rebuke are neutralized through undermining their standing. 

VII. Evaluating ourselves

Humanity is constantly advancing. We have technologies, medical treatments, conveniences, and a standard of living that our grandparents and even our parents did not imagine. Yet, the basic nature of humanity, in many ways, remains unchanged. Are we different from the generation of the Churban? Do we follow others without fully considering the righteousness of the behaviors we emulate? Are we willing to engage in an open discussion of our behaviors, attitudes, and values? These are the questions that these Sages are demanding we ask.

[1] Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) is known for two works. Ohr Sameach is the name of his commentary on Rambam’s Mishne Torah. He is often referred to as the Ohr Sameach. His other well-known work is Meshech Chochmah which is a commentary of the Torah.

[2] The phrase he uses is לא הוכיחו זה את זה. The more conventional expression would be לא הוכיחו זה לזה. 

[3] Rav Meir Simcha of Devinsk, Meshech Chochmah on Sefer Devarim, Parshat Devarim, Haftarah Sefer Yeshayahu 1:13.