Dreams and Visions

Hardly anyone reads the prophet Joel nowadays. In part, it is simply too painful. His opening vision of a plague is devastating. Then too, he reverses both Micah (4:3) and Isaiah (2:4) who promise a future when, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation; They shall never again know war.” Joel turns it around. His idea of consolation is that Israel will prepare specifically for war; “They shall beat their plowshares into swords and their pruning hooks into spears” (4:10).

But there is another side to Joel. I learned it years ago, listening to Reform Jewish teenagers singing a Debbie Friedman melody: “Your old shall dream dreams, and your youth shall see visions” (Joel 3:1). At the time, so many years back, I identified with the youth who would see visions. Older now, I settle for the first part of the verse, dreams. But I admit it: dreams fall short of visions. Dreamers are not visionaries.

Visionaries see promise beyond our present that the old dismiss as just a dream. Joel calls their visions chezyonot (singular: chizayon). A chizayon, says the midrash, is one of ten names by which the gift of the holy spirit is known.

The reason this comes to mind is that Tisha B’av, which falls next week, is preceded by Shabbat Chazon, “The Sabbath of Vision.” Chazon and chizayon are similar names for the same thing: “vision” – but a chazon is negative; a chizayon need not be. “Chazon denotes divine censure” says the medieval commentator, Redak; It designates our failures, our sins, our historical nadirs.

Shabbat Chazon, then, is not a happy Sabbath. It gets its name from its haftarah reading, Isaiah 1:1, where the prophet envisions, “Your land will be desolate; your cities burned!”

Some commentators think chazon here refers not just to the haftarah, but to all of Isaiah, whose final verse (66:24) predicts maggot-infested corpses lying in the fields; “a horror to all flesh.” Traditionally, we follow 66:24 by rereading verse 66:23 (“All flesh will come to worship Me”) so as not to end on such a note of terror.

Why does Isaiah see a terrifying chazon while Joel, living in no better time, and prone to seeing the worst anyway, sees a hopeful chizayon?

The answer is that Joel himself does not see the chizayon. He can’t. By his own testimony, he can at best dream dreams. Only the youth get chezyonot. Our future always lies with youthful promise. So I ask: in the councils of power, our Federations, synagogues, and governing boards of institutions, where is the voice of our 20 and 30 year olds?

Truth is: usually, nowhere — partly by their own choice, but a choice conditioned by our failure to invite them in. We, the older generation, tend to look for every new chazon. The history we know best has prepared us for disasters around every corner. We even thrive on the threat of a chazon every so often. We raise money on it, galvanize the community around it. What we are not very good at – us elders, I mean – is trumpeting the promise of a chizayon, precisely what the next generation would bring.

The Talmud rules that if the preparation day prior to Tisha B’av falls on Shabbat, instead of limiting our joy then, “We may eat and drink all we need, even as much as a banquet of King Solomon” (Ta’anit 29b). A kabbalistic tradition extends the teaching to say that Shabbat releases the light of redemption, so when Shabbat and Tisha B’av intertwine, even the sacred light hidden away in the tragic memory of Tisha B’av can be freed.

The report contains an important lesson: Even our deepest day of mourning has the promise of redemption.

But redemption requires a chizayon of what might be, not just a chazon of what we think always was. We need a chizayon of tomorrow’s promise, not just a chazon that relives yesterday’s suspicions.

Even in a week devoted to fasting for our past, it is no mistake to imagine a glorious future – a future that comes soon, not in some far-off messianic era. That imagination is unlikely to come from a generation that has mostly known trauma. We need desperately to empower a new generation, unspoiled, unjaded, capable not just of passing dreams but of realizable and promising visions.



8 responses to “Dreams and Visions

  1. Rabbi Hoffman — thanks as always for a thought-provoking post. I thought you were going somewhere else with it: Because there are some people in America these days who are reading the Book of Joel very closely. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, whose Christians-only 7-hour “crusade” (oy) is taking place tomorrow, has cited the Book of Joel, especially Chapter 2, as his biblical incentive to organize the rally. See: http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/08/what-expect-rick-perrys-prayer-festival-the-response

    Thanks as always for sharing this Torah. Shabbat Shalom! Neal

  2. What a tremendously insightful and important piece of writing this is, Larry! Your message is not only great chidush (chazon/chizayon) but is such an important challenge to the ways in which our community currently approaches the proverbial visioning process. How ironic and predictable a species we are. And in the words of I.B. Singer, “[in this] Jews are just like everybody else only more so.”. This piece of writing deserves to be shared with a much larger audience. I am confident it will be met with both knowing appreciation and deep gratitude. Kol Hakavode!

    • many thanks Aaron. coming from you, especially, I appreciate the good words. Feel free to share it, obviously! hope you’re doing well; I have lost track of what’s happening in your corner the world.

  3. From the Empire hotel in NY, not the most hopeful name… The vision of the map coloured pink is now stale and a reminder of the dominations of colonialism. Thank you for your words on vision. Even Hezekiah and Ahaz share two of the letters. And what is the end of chapter 66 but a vision of what has been obliterated – put aside – perished forever. The call to worship (vs 23) is so evident also in the Psalms, particularly that all nations will worship.

    So what about the vision of the 20-30 age group? All my children are past that age – some visions accomplished. If you are in NY, come to St Thomas’ 5th ave at 11 tomorrow where my daughter will conduct the summer girls choir – and Isaiah will be sung (Is 6 the Sanctus). (I myself would love to visit the Synagogue opposite the park – but family may keep me too busy.)

    Our children have found some of the vision through the discipline of the arts – and any vision from the Most High will not come without similar patience and discipline preceding and following. But how shall we study with fruitfulness. Why do many find worship without meaning for them? without application or relevance? I don’t know. It is certainly relevant to me.

    called by family – must sign off – thanks for the reading

  4. Vision – the High Line in New York is a vision for people. So is the role of St Paul’s chapel in the distress of the past decade. Very moving. Perhaps there is room for vision today also.

  5. Shalom Rav,

    You wrote: “Chazon and chizayon are similar names for the same thing: “vision” – but a chazon is negative; a chizayon need not be. “Chazon denotes divine censure” says the medieval commentator, Redak; It designates our failures, our sins, our historical nadirs.”

    One of my favorite verses is Mishlei 29:18: “B’ein xazon yipara’ ‘am…
    In the absence of vision people will become unrestrained”

    Please help me understand this verse in the context of your negative interpretation of the word, “xazon.”


  6. Thank you for this powerful meditation.

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