Adapted from a D’var Torah delivered August 9, 2014 at Congregation Beth Shalom in Ottawa, Canada
Shabbat shalom everyone. It is always a pleasure to be with you to celebrate Shabbat — and a special Shabbat, that is. Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comforting — and yes, the first Shabbat since the fast of Tish’a B’av. After spending much of this week preoccupied with grave losses both past and present, we can finally enjoy some comfort — comfort that is not spontaneous or sporadic but rather mandated by God and built into our Shabbat service today.
For this is one of the few Shabbats where a Haftorah takes centre stage, and even on a day when the Parasha is nothing to sneeze at either — after all, Ve’etchanan contains two of the most well-known passages in the whole of the Torah: the first paragraph of the Shema and the repetition of the Ten Commandments.
Today we read the first of seven Haftorahs of consolation, in which the prophets or “all who love Jerusalem” are commanded to comfort Israel. Those prophets, in this case Isaiah, have special privileges that render them, by definition, constantly focused on assessing future threats and opportunities and advising the people of Israel to be prepared for what is to come. Here the Prophets are mandated by God to step away from that role and offer comfort to the people of Israel, reminding them that no malevolent actor or deviant plot could be a match for the awesome power of Hashem.
The news cycle — which had recently been full of death, destruction, and despair — is ordered on hiatus so the nation can pause, breathe, and envision a better tomorrow.
As our Chumash puts it, the seven Haftorahs of consolation which we began today contain “sublime messages of encouragement that have sustained and fortified Israel during its ordeals of cruelty and persecution throughout the ages.”
But consoling Israel is merely part of the story. The prophets are also required to “proclaim the Restoration to Zion — to announce to Jerusalem that her period of exile has been fulfilled and that her sins have been forgiven.” Isaiah goes on to explain some of the “miraculous events that will unfold with the onset of the messianic era, such as the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, the revelation of G‑d’s glory, and the rewards and retribution that will then be meted out.” Isaiah then begins to “comfort the people, describing God’s power and might, and reassuring them of His care for His people.
So after a horrific week culminating in the fall of the Second Temple, we have consolation and a little daydreaming about the possibilities that the Messiah will bring. But we also have something else this week — as I mentioned, an opportunity to recite and reconstruct in our minds the very backbone of Jewish tradition and values. I am referring of course to the Ten Commandments. So this week we are reminded not just that God loves us and that a better future is possible, but we are also reminded of the key tenets of our faith — honouring our parents, abstaining from thievery and adultery, and so forth.
We come away from this Shabbat inspired to build the world we want — one that is founded explicitly upon a bedrock of Torah values as enshrined in the Ten Commandements and in the 613 mitzvot. Moreover, by reading the Shema in this format, embedded within the Torah reading itself, we are reminded of the role each of us can play in learning and teaching God’s commandements. As the Shema puts it, we are supposed to keep His words in our heart, and we must teach them diligently to our children, when we sit at home, and when we go out into the broader world. We are to brand ourselves with this code of values.
In many respects the Ten Commandments are foundational to the notion of human rights — the right to life, to security of the person, to protection from abuse and assault. And just as we recognize our capacity and indeed our obligation to build a world in which the Ten Commandments are centrepieces of daily life and order, we also recall our role in constructing a society in which fundamental human rights are enshrined and protected at all levels of human interaction.
And so we come to today, where even a cursory glance at the news headlines reveals shocking patterns of systemic human rights violations.
We see the people of Gaza being deprived of every civil, political, economic, and social right while Hamas terrorists pursue their single-handed mission to destroy Israel under the guise of being a legitimate actor in Palestinian governance. Rather, Hamas operatives are the chief betrayers of the people they were elected to serve.
We see before our eyes the heartbreaking situation of the Yazidis in Iraq — trapped on the Mountain of Sinjar in Erbil, which has become overtaken by the Islamic State (otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL). Many of us were likely unfamiliar with the Yazidis and their fragile status in Iraq until Thursday’s announcement by US President Barack Obama of urgent military measures to — as he put it — “prevent a genocide.” The innocent families stuck on that mountain — not to mention the hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis threatened on the basis of their religious beliefs, including Christians — are faced with a horrible choice: “descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.”
As Jews we understand what it means to be cornered, trapped and threatened with certain death as we seek merely to exercise our right to practise our religion peacefully and with full adherence to the rule of the law in the diverse societies we call home.
The President went on to give thanks to the American men and women in uniform working in Iraq . He said, “As a nation, we should be proud of them, and of our country’s enduring commitment to uphold our own security and the dignity of our fellow human beings.”
With these words the President modelled behaviour that we are all expected to follow after hearing today’s Torah and Haftorah portion.
Yet we cannot deny that it is currently in vogue to be cynical — whether about the Israeli-Hamas negotiations in Cairo, or about the US’ capacity to do anything to meaningfully help those persecuted by Islamist extremists in Iraq. It has become acceptable, perhaps even cool to be cynical about these efforts. Let us recognize this odious attitude for what it is and instead reaffirm our commitment to shaping a more just society.
For today we have been reminded of what we stand for — peace, security, and dignity — and we have been consoled for our previous losses. Most importantly, we have begun the important work of envisioning a better tomorrow. Shabbat Shalom.