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Discomfited by the 7 weeks of consolation

The 10 times that 'speaking tenderly' appears in the Bible are enough to call into question just how kind, loving, or gentle we can expect this speech to be
Heart-shaping clouds at sunset. (iStock)
Heart-shaping clouds at sunset. (iStock)

We have transitioned from the three weeks of sorrow in anticipation of Tisha B’Av to the Seven Weeks of Comfort or Consolation (nechama) that follow Tisha B’Av and lead up to the High Holidays. When we bless the new month, rosh hodesh, we refer to the entire month as Menachem Av, even though throughout the first three weeks we are in a state of mourning. This transitional period serves as a counterpoint to the three weeks of desolation leading up to the 9th of Av. We even celebrate the joyous holiday of Tu B’Av in this time period. Just as there are three special haftaroth of doom and warning before Tisha B’Av there are special haftarot for each of the following seven weeks. And some of these shabbatot even have special names, named after the haftarah.

This coming Sabbath is called Shabbat Nachamu because of the first words of the haftarah from Deutero-Isaiah, an anonymous prophet who wrote words of comfort during the exile. The Sabbath of Comfort and Consolation supposedly serves as an antidote to the previous mood of desolation. 

These stirring words are the opening to Handel’s Oratorio Messiah which uses the King James translation of the Bible for Isaiah’s prophecy of salvation:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned….The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low;the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

That is:

“Comfort, oh comfort My people (נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י) says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem (דַּבְּר֞וּ עַל־לֵ֤ב יְרוּשָׁלַ֙͏ִם֙), and call to her that her time of service is finished, that her sin is expiated; for she has received from God’s hand double the amount [of punishment] (כִּפְלַ֖יִם) for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).

This is an amazing statement by itself, because it is the opening of what is known as Second Isaiah, and even Rashi notices its different tone from the earlier chapters of the book:

“Console, console My people He returns to his future prophecies; since from here to the end of the Book are words of consolations, this section separated them from the prophecies of retribution. Console, you, My prophets, console My people.”

And the book fittingly ends in what is known by some as Trito-Isaiah, composed after the return from exile when God is likened to a mother who comforts her son: “As a mother comforts her son, so I will comfort you; You shall find comfort in Jerusalem”  כְּאִ֕ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִמּ֖וֹ תְּנַחֲמֶ֑נּוּ … וּבִירֽוּשָׁלִַ֖ם תְּנֻחָֽמוּ (Isaiah 66:13) . The last words in these phrase are similar to what is said in the Sephardic tradition on leaving a house of mourning, except that instead of saying you will find comfort in Jerusalem, they said that    מן השמים תנוחמו, which presumably refers to God.

NO COMFORT IN LAMENTATIONS

We should note that the statement of comfort or consolation contrasts with the first chapter of the scroll of Lamentations (Eicha). Even one who reads in a cursory fashion should notice that the root n.h.m appears in five different verses in chapter one (vv. 2, 9,16, 17, 21). It is all about the lack of comforter; and so Jerusalem is in a state of constant discomfort, in an unresolved state.

Vs. 2 “she has no comforter” (Lam 1: 2) אֵֽין־לָ֥הּ מְנַחֵ֖ם

Vs. 9 “there is none to comfort her” אֵ֥ין מְנַחֵ֖ם לָ֑הּ

Vs 16 “the comforter distanced himself from me” כִּֽי־רָחַ֥ק מִמֶּ֛נִּי מְנַחֵ֖ם

Vs 17 a repetition of the phrase “There is none to comfort her” אֵ֤ין מְנַחֵם֙ לָ֔הּ

Vs. 21 “I have none to comfort me” אֵ֤ין מְנַחֵם֙ לִ֔י

What does all this mean or signify? First of all, it is very interesting that the entire month of Av is called Menachem Av, although there are authorities among our sages who debate whether the first nine days should be called that. There are those who say the first 9 days should be called simply Av and starting from the 10th (or 14th day, depending on the rabbi) the month should be called simply Menachem. Clearly the sages were pre-occupied with the aspect of comfort and/or its lack.  .

DOUBLE COMFORT

What is striking about the beginning of the haftarah is that it begins with a double “nachamu, nachamu” to the people. Is Isaiah in conversation with the text of the first chapter of Eicha. Doth the prophet protest too much? Wouldn’t one nachamu do the trick? Why repeat the word twice. Inside the second verse it states that God has made Israel pay twice or double for her sins (כִּפְלַ֖יִם). So perhaps this is the reason why you have to have a doubling of the word: two words of comfort versus double the amount of punishment for sins. And what is the double amount of punishment?

One could argue, as R. Moshe Alshich (1508–1593) did, that the double amount refers to the two destructions of the Temple and the banishments from the land. However, the commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089/1092-1164/1167) writes thatThe repetition of the words Comfort ye is to indicate, that the comfort is to be administered immediately or repeatedly.” He also writes that “this chapter (Isaiah 40) has been placed here because in the preceding chapter it is predicted that all the treasures of the King, and even his sons, will be carried away to Babylon; this sad prediction is properly followed by the words of comfort.” Alshich also writes that “And when I said double comfort in the words ‘comfort them, comfort them’, it is because she received a double payment for their sins, because ‘  she has received from God’s hand double the amount for all her sins”, since the punishment of the lover [God] is much harder on the person [Jerusalem] than the blow from an enemy’s sword. And that’s why the double punishment she received from her merciful father [God] for sinning, was felt to be twice the amount because she received the punishment that God felt she deserved through a double form of anger and rage.”

LOVE ME TENDER(LY)

But beyond the problem of the double words of consolation and double payment for sins, we have another interesting phrase which to me is much more problematic, and that is the phrase “speak tenderly to Jerusalem’s heart” דַּבְּר֞וּ עַל־לֵ֤ב יְרוּשָׁלַ֙͏ִם֙  (Isa 40:2). On the surface this is a beautiful phrase, God loves Israel and cares about her and speaks to His people tenderly. Most interpreters see this as representative of a well-intentioned speaker speaking to a person he cares about. It is a form of wooing; a form of seduction, persuasion. It is a mode of speech used by a lover who cares and wants to restore the ties of love between God, the speaker, and the people of Jerusalem. The Speaker tries to persuade the recipient(s) of his speech to accept his point of view. However, we should also keep in mind, that this statement is made after the horrendous suffering of the people which He inflicted on them.

The expression daber al lev can be understood differently. The phrase daber al lev occurs 10 times in the Tanakh. It occurs in contexts of danger or difficulties.  The 10 texts are Genesis 34:3; 50:21; Judges 19:3; 1 Samuel 1:13; 2 Samuel 19:8; Isaiah 40:8; Hosea 2:16; Ruth 2:13; 2 Chronicles 30:22; 32:6. They are listed below in the order they appear in the Tanakh:

  • Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her and disgraced her. He was strongly attached to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl, and he spoke to the girl tenderly וידבר על לב (Genesis 34:3).
  • Joseph speaks to his brothers: “And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your dependents.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them וידבר על לבם (Genesis 50:21).
  • The Levite and the Concubine of Gibeah: Then her husband went after her to woo her לדבר על לבה  in order to get her to return to him (Judges 19:3).
  • Now Hannah was praying in her heart מדברת על לבה; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard and Eli thought she was drunk (1 Samuel 1:13).
  • General Yoav to King David: “Now arise, come out and placate your followers ודבר על לב. For I swear by the LORD that if you do not come out, not a single man will remain with you overnight; and that would be a greater disaster for you than any disaster that has befallen you from your youth until now” (2 Samuel 19:8).
  • Assuredly, I will speak coaxingly to her And lead her through the wilderness/ her ravaged land And speak to her tenderly ודברתי על לבה (Hosea 2:17).
  • Comfort, oh comfort My people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem דברו על לב  and call to her that her time of service is finished, that her sin is expiated; for she has received from God’s hand double the amount of punishment for all her sins (Isaiah 40:2).
  • Ruth to Boaz: “You are most kind, my lord, to comfort me and to speak gently דברת על לב to your maidservant—though I am not so much as one of your maidservants” (Ruth 2:13).
  • Hezekiah persuaded וידבר יחזקיהו על לב  all the Levites who performed skillfully for the LORD to spend the seven days of the festival making offerings of well-being, and confessing to the LORD God of their fathers (2 Chronicles 30:22).
  • He [Hezekiah] appointed battle officers over the people; then, gathering them to him in the square of the city gate, he rallied them וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר עַל־לְבָבָ֖ם, saying, “Be strong and of good courage; do not be frightened or dismayed by the king of Assyria or by the horde that is with him, for we have more with us than he has with him (2 Chronicles 32:6-7).

Obviously, I cannot address all of these phrases. The interested reader can go to my website and read the article, “The Concubine of Gibeah: The Case for Reading Intertextually” which discusses each one of these verses.

In the case of Shechem speaking to Dinah’s heart (Gen 34:3) and God speaking to Israel’s (Hos. 2:16), we have a situation where a superior person (Shechem/God) reassures a subordinate. The Levite in Judges 19 wants to restore the life he had before his partner, the pilegesh ran away from him. On the surface there is no coercion; however, the rabbis imply that she left him because he was abusive to her (Gittin 6b). Often the translation of daber al lev is translated as a form of wooing, to convince the opposite party to accept his proclamation at face value. So Shechem woos Dinah, the  Levite woos his concubine, Boaz woos Ruth, David and Hezekiah woo their troops and commanders, in order to persuade the recipients to accept their arguments. As to our two prophets, Isaiah and Hosea, the so called wooing is in the context of the memory of prior abuse on the part of God (who is also metaphorically the husband of Israel). How can she not remember this, unless she totally disassociates (as some victims of abuse do)? Assuming she does remember, it does not bode too well for God’s living up to his comforting promise of a wonderful and compassionate future together.

THE CASE OF JOSEPH

The astute reader might wonder why I include Joseph in my list. Almost every commentator uses Joseph’s words favorably. However, I argue that the brothers have a right to continue to suspect Joseph who speaks “tenderly” to them in Genesis 50:21 and to continue to suspect him of future reminders of their guilt, in keeping with his payback to them and mental abuse of them in Egypt. They grovelingly begged Joseph to forgive them and his emotional answer was:

“Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. And so do not fear. I will provide for you and your children.” Thus he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them.

Obviously, anyone who knows about sibling relationships would not trust Joseph’s so-called reassuring words. Siblings have long memories of abuse. And notice that the brothers do not answer him; they simply listen passively and perhaps are in such terror that they do not do anything which might tick him off against them in the future. Of course, it is in his interest to reassure them — after all he is going to ask a big favor of them — to bury his bones in the land of Israel, but they don’t know that at the time and when he “comforts them” and “speaks kindly to them” he holds all the cards.

What I hope to have shown by juxtaposing all these texts together is that talk is suspicious and cannot be trusted, even if it is tender and conciliatory — especially if the speaker is one who holds the reins of power with its potential to subjugate and even exterminate. So when the expression daber al lev, speak to her tenderly, is used, we cannot believe that this is true, because all the texts do not end well, i.e., they foreshadow or forebode future violence or betrayal. It is an ominous term, and the translation of speak tenderly does not take into account the vibrato of the expression daber with all of its associations. I would argue further that either prior to, or following this expression, there is violence associated with this term. If we were to speak cinematically, there would be some horror music in the background whenever the term is used. Although comfort (nechama) and promises of conciliation (teshuva) are associated with this term we have to always look at all instances of daber al lev with a hermeneutics of suspicion in the classical sense, i.e., that this expression is dangerous for women, the people of Israel portrayed as a woman, and others who are on the receiving end of this phrase.

POSTSCRIPT

In his editor’s note on August 10th, David Horovitz wrote: “A tense calm has returned to central and southern Israel, and to the Gaza Strip, after one of the shorter rounds of conflict between Israel and the terror groups. We all know it won’t last.”

Now far be it me to even hint that Israel has been terrorized by God and that we as a people are in a tense calm until the next time, when we all know that God’s terror is always around the corner and that his comfort “won’t last”. Yet there was something in Horovitz’s words that spoke to me as I was wrapping up this blog. So for what it is worth, I am ending with his words as a caution for all of us, not to be comforted by anything we hear in the news or read, even in our holy scripture, and not to take anything for granted.

Caveat Emptor!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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