Frederick L. Klein

Parashat Va-Etchanan & Shabbat Nachamu: Healing after devastation

Consolation by A. Kinder, 1871. (Courtesy of Wikipedia, "Consolation")

“Console, console (Nachamu, Nachamu) My people,” says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of God double for all her sins. A voice calls, “In the desert, clear the way of the Lord, straighten out in the wilderness, a highway for our God.”

-Haftarah for Parashat VaEtchanan, Isaiah 40:1-3

This shabbat, the first of the ‘seven shabbats of consolation’ following the national mourning day of Tisha B ’Av, is aptly named Shabbat Nachamu, the opening words of our haftarah.  Isaiah’s words are meant to serve as a balm following a time of devastating loss and destruction.[1]  Yes, Jerusalem has paid for its iniquities and injustices, but this time has passed, and the redemption is near. God is not far; in fact, a heavenly voice calls to clear the road to Jerusalem through the lifeless wilderness, as God again approaches.  Jerusalem will not forever be abandoned, forlorn, and alone.  (In our own lives we have seen this prophecy fulfilled!) Like the metaphorical Jerusalem, the crying of the Jewish people for the destruction of the two Temples and the resultant exiles and suffering will also end.  Isaiah is not only speaking to the exiles of past generations, but to each of us.  Look forward in expectation!

How can one say these things? Only days earlier we read the words of another prophet.  In the book of Eichah, Lamentations, Jeremiah mourns the destruction of the Temple with an intensity unrivaled in almost any other text.    His eyes become dried from crying, as there are simply not enough tears. For these things do I weep, my eyes flow with tear.  Far from me is any comforter. Who might revive my spirit? My children are forlorn, for the foe has prevailed (Lamentations 1:16).  If only his eyes were and endless well of tears, the tears would never cease.   What is Isaiah talking about?! What hope?!  What consolations?!  What comfort?!

There are distinct types of loss.  The destruction of Jerusalem is not a type of loss that one ‘gets over’ or ‘overcomes,’ much less achieves ‘closure’- a term that should never be used in any significant loss.[2]  Yet, in only days, we have moved from a place of endless morning to a hopeful charge to ‘create a highway forward for our God.’  Never have two prophets been so diametrically opposed. How does a nation move from a place of despair and degradation to a place of consolation and even hope?  In our own lives, how do we do that?

In the opening words of this week’s parashah, God provides the key. You will remember that God had punished Moses that he would not go into the Land of Israel.  When the people were thirsty in the wilderness, he had struck the rock, rather than speaking to it as God had commanded (Numbers 20:1-13).  Rather than leading the people into the land, he was commanded to ascend the mountain, see the land that was promised to the Patriarchs, and die on that mountain (see Numbers 27:12-14).  Imagine the bitterness, the pain, and the sorrow Moses felt upon hearing this decree.  An entire life devoted to bringing the people to a land he will never set foot on!  What a bitter pill to swallow!

Yet, Moses sees a moment of grace, and attempts to tempt fate.  Following the military conquests of parts of the land of Og and the Amorites, which later were to become part of the tribal patrimony of Reuven and Gad, Moses felt that perhaps God had reconsidered.  Indeed, Moses engaged in the first salvo of conquest of the land, so maybe God has relented upon God’s devastating decree.  Moses turns to God:  I pleaded with God at that moment (Deuteronomy 3:23).   Let me enter the land he says. Relent on your decree.

The midrash elaborates, that this was not a simple request of Moses to rescind a decree.  It was a ‘full court press.’  In one midrashic tradition drawing on the numeric value of Va-Etchanan– I pleaded, Moses approached God 515 times!  Similarly, Moses invokes the word chanan/plead, a type of prayer that is meant to evoke God’s undeserved mercy and kindness, not a prayer grounded in one’s merit.   However, in other midrashic texts, Moses bargains with God, invoking his merit and even claiming God’s decree is unjust![3]  If Moses’s intercessions over generations stayed the punishment of God from the people, certainly God could afford him that same consideration.

God’s response to Moses’s entreaties is denied absolutely and decidedly. God said to me, “Enough!- Rav Lach; speak no more to Me of this matter (Deuteronomy 3:26). God’s response is laconic, unfeeling, and even insensitive.  The words leave Moses with no hope, no ambiguity, no counterargument.[4]  On the contrary. Moses will go up to Mount Moab, he will charge Joshua with leadership, and there he will die in an unknown grave in the wilderness.   Why is God so insensitive to Moses, even cruel?  There is a message for us in God’s absolute answer to Moses.

Life affords us many avenues and possibilities.  Life has many doors through which we may pass. Yet, there are some doors that become locked and no longer accessible.  No matter how much we pray and petition, these prayers remained unanswered.  This teaching of life is bitter, but critical in developing the capacity to move forward.  To continue to bang on locked doors is not only a baseless exercise in futility but prevents us from engaging in real acts of utility.

Moses indeed was going to die, but God was telling him directly that his life was not over.  It is true that he would not lead the people to the next stage of Jewish history, but he was needed to shape the leadership and the people to embrace their next stage.  Moses had to strengthen and elevate Joshua’s profile among the people, give them moral and religious instruction, and prepare them for a critical time in which he would not be present. Once Moses had entreated with all his heart but was ultimately denied, Moses was given the gift of perception of possibility again.   To move to this place of acceptance may take time, but once one has moved through the pain of loss, one can began to embrace what is and what could be, while recognizing and remembering those things in life, which can never be.  As long as Moses is pleading with God, he is unable to embrace the present, and certainly cannot move the people towards the future.

What is true on the personal level of Moses, is also true on the national level.  Tisha B’Av was a moment of Rav Lachem, a moment of ‘speak to me no more about this matter.’  On the day of Tisha B’Av the Jewish people remember a time that indeed all was lost and that everything we knew was no longer.  The day of Tisha B’Av is a day in which we cannot and will not accept what has happened.  We cry and let out our feelings, whatever those feelings will be.  The liturgical dirges recited on Tisha B’Av, the kinnot, are not simply reflections of the distant past, but generations upon generations using the seminal event of the destruction of the Temple to reflect upon their present as well.   (It is for this reason, the ultra-Orthodox community has largely marked the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av and not Yom HaShoah, but this is a topic for a different time.)

Yet the acceptance of this disaster provides a space in which new possibilities are possible.  We can mourn and remember what is lost, but we can build the foundations for the future as well.  Our Jewish tradition teaches us that it is dangerous to mourn for too long.   Our national day of mourning is followed by a shabbat of consolation.  In fact, this is the first of seven shabbats, the shiva de’nechemta, which culminates on Rosh Hashanah, a day of personal and national renewal.  This movement from mourning to the ability to be consoled is reflective of a resilient person, and a resilient nation.

This theme is underscored in Lecha Dodi, the liturgical poem composed by Rabbi Shlomo Elkabetz and recited every Friday night.  There we read that the Jerusalem, the Jewish capital is personified as a person in mourning and crying.  The poet says Rav Lach Shevet Ba’Emek HaBacha.. It is enough!  Cease crying from the valley of tears.  God will bestow mercy upon you.  Redemption will come.  The same words, Rav Lach– it is enough, are the same word God tells Moses in our parashah.  While one cannot know for certain what was in the mind of the poet, I suspect he was thinking about our parshah in composing these lines.

In closing, today is also another joyous day on the Jewish calendar, Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av. While the origins of this day are very unclear, Tu B’Av on the Jewish calendar became known as a ‘Jewish Valentine’s Day’ of sorts.  In ancient times there were festivals where men and women would meet, finding their soulmates, and in modern times many traditional singles events and weekends are planned this weekend.

The significance of the date of Tu B’Av is murky, so Rabbinic tradition ascribes significance to this day.  Most significantly for us, Tu B’Av is linked to the evil report of the spies, which resulted in a punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert.  This was the first of the ‘disasters’ that happened on Tisha B’Av.  Thus, Tisha B’Av was the day chosen as a day of despair and crying for all generations.  The generation that left Egypt was to languish and perish in the desert for the next forty years- save Joshua and Caleb.  Tu B’Av is the day that in the fortieth year the last of that generation died.  In other words, Tu B’Av is a beginning of sorts after a prolonged period of loss and devastation.  If Tisha B’Av was the beginning of the devastating decree, Tu B’Av was the ending.

But why mark this day with romantic festivals?   The Mishna in Taanit exclaims that Tu B’Av is a day unrivaled in joy, only comparable to Yom Kippur (Ta’anit 4:8). We might not see Yom Kippur as a festive day, but the rabbis quote Shir HaShirim, the Songs of Songs.  Rabbinic Judaism has read this love story as an allegory between the love of God and the Jewish people.  There, Yom Kippur is seen as a romantic wedding day; it was the day that Moses brought down the second tablets, thereby marking the renewal of the covenantal relationship following the Golden Calf.[5]   Like Tu B’Av, Yom Kippur is a time of renewal following a time of brokenness; in essence, Yom Kippur is not the first wedding, but the second wedding following divorce!  The implications for us are so fundamental, such an important teaching about the human spirit. Both the unrivaled joy of Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur is grounded in our capacity to reengage with life and love once again, following a winter of loss.

It is not a coincidence that Tu B’Av is a mere six days after Tisha B’Av, and that Shabbat Nachamu immediately follows the prophecies of destruction we read last shabbat on shabbat hazon.  Contained in these days is the realization that devastation, crying, and sorrow is woven into the fabric of existence.  At the same time, our prophets and rabbis call out to us, promising us that there will be an end to the suffering, even a time of renewal and joy.  Perhaps we are in a place in our lives when we are ready to hear these words, and perhaps we are not.  Either way, we plant the seeds of faith and hope in our hearts, with the conviction that we will again experience joy.

Nachamu, nachamu ami– be comforted, be comforted, my people.  May each of you feel these words as well when you need them most.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] The second half of Isaiah in critical scholarship is post-exilic and is the voice of another prophet from the one contemporaneous with Hezekiah in chapters 1-37.

[2] See the work of Pauline Boss, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change (USA:  W.W. Norton, 2021)

[3] See the essay by Rabbi Simcha Raphael, which examines some of these traditions and responses to the decree of death.  This short essay brilliantly links some of Moses responses to Kubler Ross’ five stages of death- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

[4] While certain midrashic traditions will continue to voice Moses’ inner-feelings, the Torah text seems to imply that Moses accepts his fate.

[5] See Mishna Ta’anit 4:8, quoting Song of Songs 3:11, which associates Solomon’s wedding day with revelation.  However, surprisingly the revelation referred to here is not Shavuot, which would be the natural explanation of this midrash, but in our context is invoked to refer to Yom Kippur, the day the second tablets were brought down (Bartenura idem).

The above is dedicated to the memory of those souls lost in the Surfside disaster in Miami a little over a year ago.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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