I haven’t written in awhile, so that we are now well into the שבעה דנחמתא, the seven haftarot we read from Tisha B’Av until Rosh haShanah. All seven focus on consolation and come from the last half of the book of Yeshayahu, chapter forty and on.
The first book I published, Educating a People: An Haftarah Companion as a Way of Finding a Theology of Judaism (which I placed online for free download), went through each haftarah of the calendar, for two purposes. First, it offered a 1000 word comment on each haftarah, to ease understanding of what we read in shul.
Second, I took several opportunities (after each book of the Torah, and then after each unit of haftarot for holidays and other special occasions, with a conclusion at the end) to show the innate theology we find in those haftarot. My point was that if we note the repeated themes in haftarot, we find a set of core Jewish ideas.
Starting from now, the time of comfort and consolation, I am looking to delineate Yeshayahu’s vision of that promised consolation more fully and more exactly. Too often, we assure ourselves we know what Judaism says about an issue, without having consulted the relevant sources. In the aftermath of Tisha B’Av, tradition had us turn to Yeshayahu, the prophet of consolation, and excerpted the end of his work for comforting messages.
I want to understand those messages in full and not just in excerpt, so I will start with the fortieth chapter of the book and hope to work my way through, to see what the last forty percent of Yeshayahu tells us about consolation—what it is and how to get it.
A Cautionary Story
By way of introduction, I start with a story that comes out of the Hindu tradition, but has much to teach us about being open to the truth as it is, not as we want it to be. The story tells of a righteous man who is exceedingly poor. One of the deities of Hindu myth asks the other why he doesn’t make the man rich, and he answers that he can’t.
That’s an odd claim for a supposed god to make, and the first one challenges him on it. “What do you mean, you can’t? You’re omnipotent!” “Fine, what should I do?” “Give him a bag of gold.”
Done. He drops a bag of gold right in the path of the righteous man, enough to make him fabulously wealthy for the rest of his life. The two watch as the man approaches the bag, steps carefully over it, and continues on his way. Then they hear his internal chatter: “How wise you are to have been watching where you are going! Had you not paid attention, you’d have tripped over that stone in the road and hurt yourself!”
We want consolation, but are we ready to see what it looks like and how to earn it?
How Do We Make Ourselves Aware of Coming Consolation?
The first verse of chapter forty doubles the word נחמו, console, and the second verse asserts that the Jews have received double their sins in expiation. While this phrase is famous for its tune (and its being heard every year after Tisha B’Av, when we hunger most for consolation), we don’t follow up to find out what it tells us.
Malbim says the call is for prophets to console Hashem’s people. That already is a lesson that I do not believe we today always remember– we can best connect to comfort by turning to those empowered to show us the way to it, our prophets (and, in our times, those who work to make those prophets’ messages clearest to us).
Malbim explains the doubling of comfort in that it can come early, if we merit it, or at its appropriate time. This is a reminder of a theme I have found in many places lately, that we often don’t realize how much we can do to improve our lot. Here, Malbim is reminding us that Jewish tradition didn’t see the exile as necessarily lasting any set of time. There was the longest it could be, but there were and are many ways for us to shorten it.
Kli Yakar to Devarim 4;26 says our punishment and comfort are doubled because our sin had two aspects, leaving Hashem and choosing other gods (which do not have to go together). That, too, is a point that can be overlooked—we can turn to other gods without abandoning Hashem, and especially without realizing we are abandoning Hashem. Or, we can abandon Hashem without replacing that. Yet we as a people have done both; for that reason, our punishment has been doubled, taking account of the dual nature of our sin. And our comfort will be doubled as well, in that we will return to success and those nations that oppressed us will decline.
Old and New Miracles Easing the Path to Return
Verse three speaks of a voice calling in the desert to clear the path to Hashem. Malbim notes that the reference to a desert reminds us of the Exodus, and indeed Michah 7;15 speaks of Hashem showing us miracles as in Egypt. This verse in Yeshayahu, however, says that Hashem will clear a new path, never before trodden, meaning miracles never before seen that will be used in the next redemption.
Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael Beshalach tells us about that previous redemption, that the Jews were surrounded by clouds of Glory, one of which would level the road in front of them (as verse four says, lifting the valleys and lowering the mountains).
The Midrash might have meant that literally, but I think most of us would take it metaphorically, that Hashem will make it easy for us to return. That doesn’t mean Hashem will bring us back, it means Hashem will clear a path. It will take us to notice the open, leveled road. That, too, is metaphorical: if Hashem finds us a way to get back to Israel in hours instead of weeks or months, will we see that as a fulfillment of this prophecy?
Verse five speaks of Hashem’s Glory being revealed, and Radak thinks that is the result of our leaving the exile with a mighty hand, finding all our needs on the way back. Our making our way back, when the nations around us denied that possibility, will reveal Hashem’s Glory, making them realize that all these prophecies of comfort were the Word of God.
I note that, for the Zionists among us, that means that all the wonders we have seen in the last century and a quarter are not yet fulfillment of this prophecy, since most of the nations still do not recognize this as Hashem acting to bring us back. There is, apparently, even better to come.
The Ephemeral and the Eternal
Verses 6-8 speak of Yeshayahu hearing a voice that tells him to call out that people are like grass and flowers, in that they will dry up or blow away, but Hashem’s Word will stand forever. Rashi thinks this is a reference to those who puff themselves up, forgetting that all humans pass away. Our mortality means that we should not be too confident in people’s promises to act kindly towards us, since we cannot be certain they will be able to fulfill their promises, whereas Hashem’s Word will always be fulfilled. So the news of the coming redemption, however much it might be delayed, is ironclad and should be fully comforting.
Radak, as we’ve seen and will see again, reads this in terms of non-Jews’ resistance to the Redemption. The flesh that will surely pass like grass and flowers, is that of those who join Gog and Magog (the armies opposing Hashem in the war before the final Redemption). To resist the inevitability of our redemption is to find oneself blown away like the grass and flowers.
Emphasizing Hashem’s Power and Care
The last two verses of this section speak of Hashem coming with great power and also like a shepherd tending his flock. Rashi and Radak read the first verse as reminding us that Hashem has the power, on His own, to redeem us, and has great reward ready– Rashi says for the righteous; Radak says for those who trust in Him in exile.
Radak’s standard is much broader than Rashi’s, since trust in Hashem, even in exile, is enough to earn reward. It reminds us that believing in Hashem’s power to bring it is an important first step in meriting the Redemption.
Power might seem to preclude empathy or tenderness, but verse eleven speaks of Hashem acting like a shepherd, gathering sheep with His arm and carrying them in His bosom, gently leading nursing mothers and their young. Radak notes that a shepherd takes his animals one by one, in the way that works for each, and then translates the metaphor to us—Hashem will lead the Jews out of exile, each at their own pace.
He adds his father’s comment that the verse stresses that this is Hashem’s own flock, to which people give greater care than a flock they’ve been hired to watch. That fits well with Rabbenu Bechaye’s differentiating between when Scripture refers to העם, the nation, and עמי, my nation. On Bamidbar 25;1, Rabbenu Bechaye says the first is always a language of denigration, leading in to some wrong the people committed. My nation, on the other hand, is a language of praise, expecting good both from and for the Jews.
Here, that means that Hashem will treat us a like a flock, giving us each what we need to bring us back to the Land of Israel. Some of us need only that it be possible; others of us need to be fired from a job, others of us need our children to go there first, and then slowly move there as we try to keep up with our grandchildren. Some of us need much more.
But a first step in that process, this section of the chapter already shows, is that we have to recognize Who it is who is the source of redemption, believe in His power to bring that redemption, and then do what we need to to allow that to happen.