This Shabbat, as part of the regular synagogue service, Jews hear a reading of first 27 verses of the Book of Isaiah. It's a prelude to the Ninth of Av, a solemn day of mourning for the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, which begins this year at sunset on July 19.
The question arises, why was this particular passage chosen for this particular Shabbat?
The answer would seem to be found in verse 7: "Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is as desolate, as if it were overthrown by floods."
But the devastation Isaiah describes has nothing to do with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He lived more than a century before that tragedy. The prophet is referring to the invasion in 701 BCE by the Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib during which he besieged and destroyed the important Judean city of Lachish but turned back before conquering Jerusalem.
This event was unique in the history of the Bible since independent accounts of it are preserved in the Book of Kings II, in two separate Assyrian clay prisms now held at the British Museum and the University of Chicago and also at the site itself where archaeologists uncovered clear evidence that the city was besieged and burned. These records agree on many issues but not on the most crucial question of all which is, why did the Assyrians stop short of destroying Jerusalem?
The Assyrian records, naturally, paint the campaign as a tremendous success during which their army conquered 46 cities . King Hezekiah, the King of Judea, they say, was left shut up in Jerusalem "like a caged bird." He was able to survive only after paying Sennacherib a vast fortune in gold, silver, jewels and ivory-inlaid furniture. The Hebrew Bible agrees that Hezekiah paid gold and silver to the Assyrians but adds in the Book of Kings II: "That night the angel of the Lord went forth and struck down 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp. Early the next morning, there they were, all the corpses of the dead. So Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, broke camp and went back home to Nineveh." Perhaps there was an outbreak of disease in the Assyrian camp that forced them to retreat.
Some commentators suggest this event, in which Judea suffered terribly but Jerusalem miraculously survived, represented a final warning to the Jews to repent or face the ultimate cataclysm - the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. It's a passage designed to remind us that we still have time to change our ways and avert the next catastrophe.
How do we do so? Perhaps by praying harder and more fervently, observing the festivals and fasts and the Sabbath more strictly, by intensifying our devotion to ritual?
No, replies Isaiah. The only way is to strive harder to build a truly just society, one which cares for the weak and powerless.
"Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow," he says.
Judea deserves its punishment because it failed to do these things, Isaiah declares.
"Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes and follows after rewards," he says in a sentence that should ring resoundingly in our ears today. "They judge not the fatherless, neither does the cause of the widow come to them."
God is not impressed by prayers and sacrifices from a people that tolerates corruption and injustice.
"To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me? says the Lord; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats ... Your new moons and your appointed seasons, your festivals, your Sabbaths, your new moons My soul hates; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when you spread your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; when you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood."
Isaiah's message is just as clear and as vital today as it was when he delivered it, some 2,700 years ago. Prayer and ritual have an important place in our lives, of course, but they cannot substitute for action to finally build a just society.