Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 31st July 2020
After Tisha B’Av, the ancient day of mourning that commemorates the destruction of the Temples and the tragedies that have beset the Jewish people over millennia, comes the Sabbath of Comfort, Shabbat Nachamu. This Shabbat takes its name from the opening words of one of the most famous passages in the Hebrew Bible: Nachamu, nachamu ammi, yomar Eloheychem – Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God (Isaiah 40:1).
The second part of the Book of Isaiah is thought to be the work of an anonymous prophet who lived some two hundred years after the first Isaiah in the sixth century BCE, hence the reference to the author as Deutero or Second Isaiah. The book is thought to be composed towards the end of the Babylonian exile and during the early post-exilic period and includes many passages of consolation and the persuasive promise of redemption. This Haftarah is the first of seven Haftarot d’nechamta – Haftarot of comfort – that are read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah, all from Deutero-Isaiah.
What is the message of Isaiah 40? In brief, it is a message of comfort and redemption. You have paid the price for your sins, says the prophet, now look forward to the end of exile, to your return to Zion. This is an uplifting, but also sobering message, as we shall see.
The prophet, a consummate poet, begins with this double, intensive imperative: Nachamu, nachamu ami, sometimes translated as ‘Be comforted, be comforted, My people, says your God.’ But the people are not being asked to comfort themselves; it is the prophet who is required by God to give consolation to Israel – ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem’ or as some translations have, ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…’ God is exhorting the prophet to be moved to pity, to show compassion to Israel, to pour the balm of loving kindness over a people who, because of exile from their land and losses they have sustained, have known loneliness and anguish.
They have suffered at the hands of a foreign power, not because of what or who they are – this is not an ancient form of antisemitism – a gratuitous hatred towards the Jews, with destruction and exile as a form of xenophobic behaviour towards Jews as Jews, nor is it even because they have been victims of a powerful, foreign power. They have suffered and been punished, says the prophet, because of their sins. And what were these sins of the people? According to the Talmud (Yoma 9a), the First Temple was destroyed because of three sins committed at the time: idolatry, illicit sexual relations and bloodshed. Depravity is the cause of the people’s exile, according to the Rabbis; and to immorality are added neglect of the mitzvot and the people’s ignorance of Torah.
But now, they have served their time: ‘Declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of the Eternal One, double for all her sins.’
And now we understand why the chapter begins with that double ‘Comfort O comfort My people’; the punishment for Israel’s sins has been double – kiflayim – she has endured twice as much affliction as other nations, says ibn Ezra, because she has lost the centre of her worship and is exiled from her homeland.
Now Israel can look forward to returning to Zion and that promise is proclaimed in ecstatic language: ‘A voice rings out: ‘Clear in the desert a road for the Eternal One! Level in the wilderness a highway for our God! Let every valley be raised, every hill and mountain made low. Let the rugged ground become level and the ridges become a plain…’ There is no geographical or any other kind of barrier that prevents Israel from returning to Zion – this is a physical return of a people to its land, but also a spiritual return of the people to themselves, to God, to the path of righteousness. Such is the uplifting message of these verses.
But there is also a more sober message too. For humanity is weak, says the prophet, ‘all flesh is grass;’ beauty and goodness are transient, ‘grass withers, flowers fade.’ There is a vulnerability about you, says the prophet. You are like sheep, like helpless lambs, carried in the arms of God, who gently drives the mother sheep. This poignant metaphor of protection and guidance, care and love, contrasts the susceptible weakness of humanity with the incomparability of God’s power and love.
It is through messages such as these that we are helped in our survival and comprehension of disastrous events – the catastrophic events that brought about destruction and exile for the Jewish people in ancient times and more recent tragedies in the twentieth century. Our texts cannot change the world, sadly, but – as the poet, writer and academic, Adam Zagajewski has written – such words ‘[are] able to attenuate the blows that hit the ordinary people.’
I am so struck by that phrase – that the lyricism of poetry, the redemptive speech of prophecy, the beauty of music and the power of art – may be able to ‘attenuate the blows that hit ordinary people.’ In other words, they have the capacity to console us, to lighten our load, to soothe our anguish about the state of the world and to calm our temper.
As we emerge from the lament of Tisha B’Av into this seven week countdown towards Rosh Hashanah and the uncertainty that lies ahead for all of us, let us take to heart the words of Isaiah 40: Nachamu, nachamu ammi, yomar eloheychem – May we find comfort in our spiritual heritage, in our prayers and music, in the companionship of community; and may its laws and teachings give us strength and determination to work for social justice and change in our world:
‘God gives strength to the weary,
Fresh vigour to the spent.
Youths may grow faint and weary,
And the young stumble and fall;
But they who trust in the Eternal One shall renew their strength
As eagles grow new plumes:
They shall run and not grow weary,
They shall march and not grow faint’ (Isaiah 40:29-31).
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