I dedicate this post to the memory of my sister, Maxine Hope, Nechama Tikva, who passed away, after a long and courageous battle with cancer, 11 years ago. She offered comfort and hope to her family, friends and community every day of her life.
On this upcoming Shabbat in synagogues in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, on Parashat Va’Etchanan, (Deuteronomy, 3:23-7:11), we begin to read a chapter from the prophet Isaiah each week for the next 7 weeks. Beginning on the Sabbath after the Jewish commemorative day known as Tisha B’Av — the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, also known as Menachem Av, the month of comfort, the day that we remember the destruction of the First and Second Jewish Commonwealths of in ancient times, as well as other national tragedies in Jewish history — these readings are called the readings of Nechemta, from the Hebrew root nacham, which usually is translated as “to comfort” or to “console “, but really have the meaning of “hope and restoration”, as I will explain below.
We also read from Isaiah (chapter one) last week in what is known as Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Vision, named after the first sentence in chapter one of the book of Isaiah. This was the third in a series of three prophetic readings — one from Isaiah and two from Jeremiah — which warned the Jewish people of their wayward ethical behavior and predicted that this would lead to their destruction and doom.
And we will read a very important chapter from Isaiah on the morning of Yom Kippur on the purpose of fasting, which reminds us quite clearly that the goal of fasting is not just the ritual itself but “to lock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the poor into your home, when you see the naked, to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin.” (Isaiah 58; 6-7)
It is fair to say, then, that the stirring messages of Isaiah concerning the kind of personal and national ethics that should guide us as we seek to rebuild the third Jewish Commonwealth ought to be seared deeply into our consciousness. Yet, it seems to me that Isaiah is generally ignored! I have the feeling all too often we chant Isaiah’s magnificent poetry and prose by rote, without paying much attention to the words. The sermon is more often on the Torah portion and Isaiah’s message is too often forgotten or sublimated.
In addition to being the prophet of world peace — “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they practice war anymore!” — Isaiah is without doubt the greatest prophet of Nechama — Comfort or Consolation — in the Bible! According to Rabbi Beni Lau, who has co-authored a magnificent book on Isaiah with Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, Isaiah is the great national comforter:
He is the one who succeeds in instilling hope in the soul of this depressed and dispersed people who have suffered so many exiles and crises, hope for return and reinvigoration of their national life. (Lau, p. 21, in Isaiah, published in Hebrew by Miskal, Yediot Achronot and Hemed Books, 2013.)
Why does Jewish tradition have us read so much of the book of Isaiah all summer long (when so many of us are on vacation!) and once again on Yom Kippur? What is the message of Isaiah that the molders of our Tradition wanted to place high in our consciousness and high on our personal, communal and national agenda?
The message was stated clearly and succinctly in Isaiah chapter one, which we chanted in our synagogues last week:
Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from my sight. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
And in this week’s classical words of comfort:
Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and declare to her that her term of service is over. (Isaiah 40:1-2)
And in next week’s prophetic reading from Isaiah:
Truly the Lord has comforted Zion, comforted all her ruins: He has made her the wilderness like Eden, Her desert like the Garden of the Lord. Gladness and joy shall abide there, Thanksgiving and the sound of music. (Isaiah 51:3)
And every week for the next 7 weeks, and then again on Yom Kippur!
What does it mean to “comfort” Zion? How could the Jewish people be comforted or consoled after the destruction of the First and the Second Jewish Commonwealths? Or, after the Holocaust in the last century?
It seems to me that the word “comfort” is probably the wrong word. Rather, what the prophet offered was hope to the people of Israel, through a vision of return and restoration that would be accompanied by a description of society that would practice personal and national ethics, and would cease “doing evil”, i.e. avoid greed and corruption, and care fairly about the poor and the underprivileged.
Isaiah is just as relevant today as he was in his own time, in the 8th century before the Common Era. His words of comfort and hope are as vital and critical for contemporary Israeli society as they were in the past. They remind us of the ideals and values we ought to cherish as a society and of the kind of just and ethical Jewish state we ought to seek to preserve in our own time.