The haftarah for the week of Devarim is always read on the Shabbat prior to Tisha B’Av (or on Tisha B’Av itself, if it falls out on Shabbat). It is considered a haftarah of great distinction: the Code of Jewish law states that it is proper that the rabbi of the synagogue be called up to read it.1 Indeed, it gives its name—after its opening word, chazon (“the vision”)—to the Shabbat on which it is read, which thus is known as Shabbat Chazon.

This haftarah is taken from the first chapter of Isaiah. In it the prophet encapsulates the underlying cause for the looming destruction of Jerusalem, and how, through teshuvah (return to G‑d), this could all be avoided.

The people’s sinful conduct had displayed incredible ingratitude. Even an ox or a donkey recognizes its owner and adheres to him, at least after he feeds it. The Jews, on the other hand, had failed at this simple and basic concept. G‑d had brought them out of slavery, sustained them in the wilderness and given them the ability to build a society of their own; was this the way to repay His kindness?

According to many commentaries, Isaiah spoke these words to the people of Judea right around the time that their brethren in the state of Israel (the ten tribes) were exiled. That state had been destroyed, together with all its cities and private property. He compares this to an aching body where both the head and the heart are hurting (an analogy to the state and the cities), as well as all the limbs (an analogy for the anguish of every family and individual). Isaiah urges his brethren to look at the destruction the majority of their people had gone through, and learn the appropriate lesson.

The conduct of the people was reminiscent of that of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. Unless a radical change would occur, their fate would be a similar one to those cities—but this time through an invading enemy.

The spiritual ailment of the time was that Judaism had become the national culture while its underlying values and precepts were ignored. Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and the festivals were celebrated, prayers were offered, and sacrifices were brought. But all these were devoid of their content and objective. The assemblages and celebrations on special occasions were meant to leave the participants inspired and elevated. The sacrifices were intended to bring a person closer to G‑d (the word in Hebrew for a sacrifice is korban, rooted in the word kiruv, closeness). But these rituals had been eviscerated of their soul, and the people thought nothing of it. The very same hands that may have been lifted in prayer were also likely to have blood on them.

Sin, for the most part, stems from the drive and passion of a person going the wrong way. The color red is used as the “color code” for sin, as it denotes the boiling blood of passion. The prophet promises that although the people had been steeped in wrongdoing, they could still do teshuvah and begin entirely anew. The “red” and “crimson” sin would clear, or turn “white,” like wool or snow. (This imagery was actually used in a very practical way: in the times of the Temple, on Yom Kippur a scarlet piece of material would be hung up for this purpose, and would miraculously turn white to indicate G‑d’s forgiveness on this day.2)

In particular, this turn of repentance had to be directed towards compassion and social justice, for these had reached terrible lows in Judea at the time. Corruption, bribery, and cruelty to the vulnerable had turned Jerusalem into the very opposite of everything it was intended to stand for.

The eventual exile would serve the function of a “refinery”: the wicked would pay for their deeds, and the righteous would eventually achieve the days of redemption. At that time, the time of Moshiach, G‑d will restore Israel and its people to their destined state as examples of justice and righteousness for the entire world. That very kind of conduct is what will bring about the coming of that era.


The Hebrew word “Tziyon” (Zion) is used twice in this haftarah in reference to the city of Jerusalem. This word, as it appears in Scripture, can also be a reference to other things, such as the Temple, the Jewish people, etc.3 Chassidic teachings explain that there is a deeper meaning to this term, particularly connected with the last verse of our haftarah: “Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her, through righteousness.”

In its root, the word Tziyon actually means “indication” or “marking.” On a mystical level, “Tziyon” is a reference to the G‑dly soul within a Jew. The reason for this is because the soul does not essentially possess an identity of its own. It is a G‑dly being, so its entire identity is a “sign” or “marker” for G‑dliness.

The vesting of the G‑dly soul into a physical body is an immense descent for it. Prior to its life on earth, the soul lives in a G‑dly reality, and its entire experience is that of the Divine. Its coming into this world, where physicality and materialism are dominant, is an extremely difficult experience for it.

The purpose of this descent on the part of the soul is because by being here it can forge a connection to G‑d Himself, something impossible to achieve without its descent to this world. Learning Torah and fulfilling mitzvot in the physical world touches G‑d Himself, because G‑d Himself is vested in the effort of being openly and entirely realized in this physical world.

In principle, this is something that should animate and excite a Jew every day anew. The mere knowledge that he or she can achieve the ultimate bond with G‑d should fill one with an overflowing feeling of joy each day. On the other hand, there will also be an element of frustration connected with this: naturally, we will feel more connected to the immediate and superficial realities of this world. It will continually frustrate a person that instead of G‑dliness being the primary reality, it often comes in as secondary in both perception and emotion. Joy, however, will always predominate over that frustration, for regardless of where one’s perceptions and emotions may lie, the reality is that through our simple day-to-day actions, we actually can connect with G‑d Himself.

This is the way the life story of a Jew ought to be. Sadly, however, the soul is sometimes suffocated. A person can submerge himself in material life to the degree that all the above does not animate him. His joys and frustrations are all in and with the matters of physical life. The G‑dliness inside him can be drowned out by the noise of what we might call “life.”

More specifically, there are two parts in this: there is the soul itself, and then there are the various expressions the soul has. The soul, though it can be shut out of consciousness, will never be affected or weakened by its submergence in physicality. Beneath the surface the soul will remain as strong as ever, ready to emerge in all its glory, like a stream of water waiting to burst forth if the earth covering it is only removed. Joy and frustration, by contrast, are neutral traits; they are not exclusive to the G‑dly soul. As above, they can express the G‑dly soul, or they can express the physical, animal-like self of the human being. So they can be affected and changed by a person’s actions, and they can be “taken captive,” vested in physical life rather than in the G‑dly.

How can such a situation be reversed for the better?

The verse tells us that “Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her, through righteousness.” The soul, “Zion,” is always complete—it just needs to be “redeemed.” The way to do that is through “justice.” The Hebrew word for justice is mishpat, which is often a reference to Torah law, the teachings of justice. Spiritually, this means that the light of Torah has the ability to illuminate the darkness of physicality, so that the soul can come to the fore.

As for the various expressions of the soul—“those who return to her”—they can be elevated through “righteousness,” tzedakah. A Jew’s actions elicit a reciprocal measure from on high. Tzedakah is when we show mercy and kindness to a fellow, and help him out of his predicament. In return for this, G‑d will bestow His mercy on us, bringing out of captivity that which is spiritually “held captive” within us.4