This week’s haftarah is the last of the Shiva de’Nehamta (the Seven Haftarot of Consolation) which lead up to Rosh Hashana. Its message is aimed at the exilic community, who having been taken into Babylonian captivity after the destruction of the First Temple, never expected to be able to return to their homeland. As inspiration, the prophet likens the redemption to the rejoicing of a bride and groom: “I greatly rejoice in the Lord. My whole being exults in my God, for He has clothed me with garments of triumph, wrapped me in a robe of victory like a bridegroom adorned with a turban; like a bride bedecked with her finery.” (61:10)
Yet, even the joy of a wedding has the potential to have its moments of anguish, as is related in the following midrash: “It is taught in the Mishnah: ‘If one has married a woman and lived with her for ten years and she has not produced a child, he is not allowed to refrain from the mitzvah of reproduction [rather he must marry someone else.] (M. Yevamot 15:6) There was a case in Sidon where a man married a woman and lived with her for ten years and she did not give birth. They came before Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai to be divorced. The husband said to his wife: ‘Anything that I have in my house, take it and return to your father’s house.’ R. Shimon ben Yohai said to them: ‘Just as you married over food and drink so, too, you should not part except over food and drink.’ What did she do? She prepared a great repast and she got him drunk and she gave a sign to the slave girl and she said to her: ‘Bring him to my father’s house.’ In the middle of the night, he awoke from his sleep and he said to them: ‘Where am I?’ She said to him: ‘Didn’t you say to me to take any possession that I wanted from your house and to bring it to my father’s house?’ And now, I have no more precious possession than you! When R. Shimon ben Yohai heard this, he prayed for them and they were remembered [with a pregnancy]. God answers the barren, so, too, do the righteous [answer the barren].” (Adapted from Pesikta deRav Kahana 22:2 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 326-7)
This midrash alludes to one of the major themes of Rosh Hashanah, also known as Yom Hazikaron – the Day of Remembrance. On Rosh Hashanah, God is acknowledged for remembering those in need. We are reminded of this theme in the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah when we read the story of how God remembered Sarah in her bareness and afforded her the birth of Isaac, and again, in the haftarah, where we read the story of the childless Hannah whom God answered with the birth of Samuel, who would become a great prophet.
The “rebirth” of a redeemed nation after being exiled, just like the birth of children under trying circumstances are never sure things. This midrash comes to teach us that hope in God’s remembering us and ingenuity sometimes offer unimagined possibilities. As we enter this season of introspection and renewal, both the prophetic message and this midrash remind us of the divine gift of optimism even when times are difficult. This is a sorely needed message going into our second Rosh Hashana with Corona restrictions.