26 Elul 5780 September 3, 2021
Haftorah Isaiah 61:10-63:9
This is the final prophecy of consolation over these seven weeks since the 9th of Av. This prophecy anticipates Rish haShannah. Several times, Isaiah describes the renewed relationship between God and the Jewish people as the relationship between a king and subjects. Powerfully, however, Isaiah describes the quality of this relationship as that between a loving couple whose romance leads to the wedding canopy. Furthermore, the power and glory of the King is not displayed in terms of military victories or wealth, but in terms of righteousness:
For as the earth brings forth her growth and a garden makes the seed shoot up, so the Lord GOD will make righteousness and renown flourish in the presence of all the nations…You shall be a glorious crown In the hand of the LORD, And a royal diadem In the palm of your God. Nevermore shall you be called “Forsaken,” Nor shall your land be called “Desolate”; but you shall be called “I delight in her,” and your land “Espoused.” For the LORD takes delight in you, and your land shall be wed. As a youth espouses a maiden, ”your sons-a shall espouse you; and as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. (61:11-62:5)
By selecting these words for the final haftorah of consolation, the ancient rabbis anticipated the coronation ceremony that distinguishes Rosh haShannah by linking three central themes: the hardship that characterizes the journey of the Jewish people through history, the enduring love and romance between us and the Creator of the world, and the nourishing power of that love to bring more righteousness into the world. By joining these themes, the rabbis underscored the profoundly spiritual values of resilience, hope, faith, and optimism. In that spirit, in anticipation of Rosh haShannah, I offer the readers the following parable that is meant to evoke these themes metaphorically.
Once upon a time, there was a young girl and a young boy. The girl and boy grew up in the same land, but never knew each other. Each grew up loving life. They loved walking through the forests, smelling the sweet fragrances of flowers, listening to the sweet songs of birds, and watching butterflies lay tag with each other. As they grew older, still, never knowing each other, they also enjoyed being with people. They looked for the good in people. They liked watching the adults rush about on their way to work or home with the setting sun. This boy and girl were so in love with life that they failed to notice the malicious smiles of tricksters. They did not really understand that people could be competitive, conniving, greedy, dishonest. They saw God’s world as a beautiful, balanced garden, appreciated and protected by people. They naturally felt deep gratitude for being alive, and felt the richness of the gifts that the world gave them in simple pleasures. They each loved the smells, colors, and sounds of the world around them. When the young boy became a young man, and the girl became a young woman, they started to feel a yearning for a partner, for someone with whom they could share their optimistic love for life and the world. Each set out on a journey to find that partner.
As the young man and young woman set out on their separate ways, each was immediately met with insurmountable challenges. Their journeys became harsh and filled with misfortune. The man traveled by boat over vast oceans. Powerful storms broke the boat. Sea creatures and pirates attacked and devoured many members of the crew. Food and riches were lost, and the man landed bereft of fortune, strength and hope. His clothes, tattered and his spirit broken, he started working menial jobs just to earn enough to feed himself, meal by meal. He lived hand to mouth like this for many months, and the months turned into years.
At the same time, the woman also met with misfortune. She traveled over the land, but her entourage was almost immediately ambushed by a band of marauders. They robbed the woman’s group of their possessions, and the woman escaped with no money, torn clothing, and without food. She walked in this condition, alone and weakened for many days, until she came upon a large mountain. As she looked at the mountain, her heart sank. “If only I could scale that mountain, there might be help on the other side,” she whispered to herself. But the rocks were too jagged and the walls too steep. Day after day she tried to climb that mountain, only to fall back, cut, bruised, broken, and defeated. Soon, she too, like the man, started to lose hope for the loving life she had known.
Despite these hardships, however, a small miracle occured. Each woke up one morning, still in far-away lands from each other, to the singing of local birds. The woman slept outside at the base of the mountain, and the man in his shack. Miraculously, despite their separation from each other, the same type of bird woke each of them every morning with the same song. That song soon revivified their spirits. That song reminded each of them of the beauty surrounding them that they used to sense and appreciate so deeply. Soon, the man and woman became reinvigorated with a sense of hope, meaning and purpose. That hope nourished their hearts. The woman suddenly saw a way up and over the mountain, and the man suddenly regained his confidence and strength to learn skills and become self-sufficient. The song of that bird penetrated each of their neshamot, and filled their hearts with the love of life and the world that had always nourished each of them naturally, for that is the way God had created humanity. That was the hope God had for people–that we would wake up every day, filled with love and appreciation for the world God created for us.
This is also the message of this week’s Torah portion, parashat Netzavim. The Torah says: See, I set before you this day life and goodness, death and adversity. For I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, to walk in God’s ways, and to keep God’s commandments, God’s laws, and God’s rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess.
Rashi commented on the phrase to love the Lord your God and said: The command to love is the basis for thriving in life, and bringing more life into the world. This is Isaiah’s message, the message of Selichot, and the orientation of Rosh haShannah. Our task, despite all hardships, despite the many horrific decisions leaders make, despite the pain and suffering people endure, that God has bequeathed a world filled with the potential for love and goodness and righteousness and life. May we learn these lessons of consolation, and continue to protect and build God’s world.
Tizku leshanim rabbit v’tovot