There are two somewhat tricky verbs in the beautiful haftarah (Isaiah 40:1-26) that gives Shabbat Nachamu (this coming Shabbat) its name. This year, each of these verbs has a particular resonance.
The first verb is nachamu itself. My sense is that many people, if asked, would translate the famous opening verse as something like: “Take comfort, take comfort, My people, says your God.” But the verb le-nachem is transitive, meaning to comfort or console others. Accordingly, Targum Yonatan and most commentaries understand the verse as a directive to the prophets of the day to console the nation; “My people” is the object of the verb, not the party being addressed.
The intransitive (“take comfort” or “be comforted”) interpretation does have some support: for instance, the modern Daat Mikra commentary mentions it in a footnote, and it seems to be upheld, implicitly, by Sefat Emet (Va-Etchanan, 5656). A third interpretation (in that same Daat Mikra footnote) understands nachamu as transitive but addressed to the people—exhorting to them to console one another. This explanation too can be questioned (it requires interpolating “one another”), but it may be the least unsatisfying alternative.
Recent research in positive psychology suggests that these different meanings of nachamu are not as mutually distinct as they may seem. Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, and others have demonstrated that acts of kindness to others are a principal means of enhancing one’s own happiness. I believe that consoling others can be an instance of this general phenomenon.
Whatever their precise meaning, these words serve as a balm for the Jewish soul each year, as we emerge from the Three Weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av, and our thoughts start to turn to the coming New Year.
This year we seem to need that balm more than ever. May we all experience consolation in the coming weeks; and let us do whatever we can to console others who need it most. I am immensely proud that my wife Shari participated in the late-July Orthodox Union Solidarity Mission to Israel, where she brought encouragement to wounded soldiers and some of the brave residents of Sderot and other hard-hit communities.
The second verb I wish to highlight is ve-khal, which appears nowhere in the Bible but in ibid. 40:12, ve-khal bashalish afar ha-aretz (“and meted earth’s dust with a measure”—1999 JPS translation). As I was taught many years ago by Prof. Yaakov Elman of Yeshiva University, that first word is often misread as ve-khol (“and all”), which makes no sense in the context. The correct pronunciation (at least for Sephardim) is ve-khal—a verb meaning that God, as it were, has measured out every speck of dust on the planet.
Hamas tunnel diggers have been much too busy moving the dust of Gaza—and of nearby Israeli communities. But we can take comfort in the knowledge that “He who is enthroned above the vault of the earth” (ibid. 40:22) is keeping tabs on every speck. Some of the infiltrations have had unspeakably tragic results. We cannot minimize these tragedies in any way; we can say that, thanks to tremendous Divine providence, many other attacks have been averted.
May the Supreme Consoler (see ibid. 51:12) protect the State of Israel, ensure the safety of its soldiers, provide comfort and strength to all of the grieving families, and bring true peace to the region and the world.