Yom Shishi, 3 Elul 5774
Friday, 29 August 2014
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Read an inspired commentary on this week’s Torah portion by one of our free-thinking Liberal Rabbis.

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Parashat Shoftim
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
29th August 2014

Between the 9 Av and Rosh Hashanah, there are seven weeks – a unit of time that counts off the weeks and days until the great festivals of repentance and atonement.  Included in those seven weeks are the four weeks of Ellul, which began this week.  It is during Ellul that prayers of Selichot – forgiveness are recited – and the beautiful Psalm 27, beginning with the words: ‘God is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?’ is also said.

The seven weeks are marked also by the seven Haftarot of consolation – sheva d’nechamta – each one drawn from Deutero-Isaiah, the anonymous prophet of the sixth century who speaks words of hope and comfort to his people who have suffered displacement from their land and humiliation and reside in a foreign land.

This week’s Haftarah – the last verses of Chapter 51 and first twelve verses of Chapter 52 – is among the most beautiful and uplifting of passages in the prophetic canon.  ‘I, I am the One who comforts you,’ are the opening words – Anochi, anochi hu m’nachem’chem. It is God, God alone who provides comfort, who mitigates the terror of His people.  I have put My words in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand, be neither frightened of the oppressor, nor fearful of the grave.  Yes, I have punished you, says God, ‘you have drunk from God’s hand the cup of wrath’, you have known devastation and destruction.

Then follows an ‘Ode to Zion’, the prophet’s exhortation to the Holy City of Jerusalem to ‘awake’, to clothe herself in strength, to array herself in robes of splendour, to shake off the dust and strip the chain from her neck.  Like a slave woman, she was sold for nothing, but now will be redeemed without money and must be prepared to welcome back the refugees into her ruins.

These verses are filled with words of comfort and consolation, but also with evidence of Israel’s great suffering.  Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his work on The Prophets, writes ‘Israel’s misery seemed out of all proportion to her guilt, and its justice belied by other facts of history.’  In other words, did ancient Israel deserve the punishment that was meted out to her; was this justice?  ‘Agony for Israel and glory for Babylon?  The beloved of God bruised and despised while the ‘mistress of kingdoms’ (47:5) ‘felt secure in…wickedness’ (47:10)?’

The prophet seems to ask whether God actually cared for his people, or was it beyond His power to save those for whom He cared.  But ‘to comfort is to throw a glimmer of meaning in a cave of wretchedness’ – Heschel’s words again.

Deutero-Isaiah teaches us how to find meaning in the darkest of hours, in the most miserable of all circumstances.  Leo Baeck in Terezin teaching Torah, this masterful, poetic prophet of the sixth century exploring the mystery of God’s ways in his contemplation of the God of creation ‘who spread out the heavens and established the earth…I stir up the sea and make its waves roar.’

Here in our Haftarah, Israel becomes the suffering servant of God – God has placed upon Israel the task of suffering for others (Heschel, p. 192); she symbolises God’s grief, God’s suffering, God’s exile from the world.  In these Haftarot that speak of the wretchedness of suffering and the glory of redemption, we learn that God is not indifferent to human suffering; the divine role is to lift people from despondency and attach meaning to past and present misery.  And this is also our role as part of humanity, because we are God’s people and because we cannot turn away from the suffering of those who are in flesh and blood, in joy and suffering, our brothers and sisters on earth.