Shabbat Nachamu: Comfort in Eternal Things

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tisha B’Av

It’s Tisha B’Av, and I’m in Orlando, Florida, attending the annual
meeting of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, where
my father, z’l, was honored by the Association (of which he was a
charter member) with a memorial lecture and recognition at an awards
program. I’m here to attend these events, and it’s been wonderful to
meet colleagues and friends of his, and to come to a greater
appreciation of his stature within his profession and among his peers.

It’s rather poignant to me that the memorial lecture is scheduled for
the morning of Tisha B’Av, a sad day of remembering the tragedies of
Jewish history. By a quirk of scheduling, the personal remembering and
the communal remembering are mixed together this year, which leads me
to this week’s Torah portion- or, more accurately, this week’s
haftarah [reading from the prophetic texts], which is always read on
the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av.

The passage opens with the words “comfort, oh comfort my people,” and
thus this Shabbat is called Shabbat Nachamu [the word “comfort” in
Hebrew], or the Shabbat of Consolation. The text is Isaiah chapter 40,
which tells of God’s power to keep the Divine promise to redeem the
people Israel. The theological connection to Tisha B’Av is clear:
Tisha B’Av recalls the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of
the people and other tragedies, and the haftarot (prophetic readings)
over the next seven weeks speak of redemption, which in classic Jewish
theology means national restoration to the Land of Israel.

One image from this week’s haftarah contrasts the finitude of living
things with the eternal nature of the Divine promise of redemption:

“A voice rings out: ‘Proclaim!’
Another asks, ‘What shall I proclaim?’
‘All flesh is grass,
All its goodness like flowers of the field:
Grass withers, flowers fade
When the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Indeed, humankind is but grass:
Grass withers, flowers fade —
But the word of our God stands forever’ ” (Isaiah 40:6-8, modified JPS
translation)

These verses are often read at funerals- in fact, I’ve read them
countless times myself, always assuming that the message of
consolation is found in connecting with the Divine Presence at a time
when we grieve the passing of finite lives. In the context of the
haftarah, the meaning is that individuals may perish, yet God’s
promise to redeem the entire people will not perish, and will
eventually come about. Yet this year I’m reading these verses in a
different way, and taking a different message of consolation from
them, and it has everything to do with my experiences here in Orlando.

Over the past few days, I’ve met people here who never knew my father
personally, but who know his scientific work, and who took it further.
I’ve also met people here who were influenced by aspects of his
character, and who have been influenced in their own careers by his
example. His body- the grass- is gone, but his work, his example, his
ideas, are not gone. I see this as a different expression of the “word
of our God”- not a prophetic vision as such, but rather the capacity
for moral choice, rational inquiry, and generosity of spirit which we
can understand as the Image of God within each of us. To put it
another way, we might say that in our day, the Word of God doesn’t
come from voices on high, but from choosing from within to act in ways
that are consistent with the highest human potential, and when we do,
these actions become part of the greater spiritual and moral reality.
Bodies die, but things that are of God do not.

Coming back to Tisha B’av, we might say this: tragedies have befallen
our people, but the animating spirit of the Jewish people- our
disciplines for bringing holiness and compassion into the world- is a
sustaining force, outlasting the tears of history. There are temporary
things, and there are eternal things; as humans, we are blessed to
partake of both.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- if you missed out on a discussion of the Torah portion
Va’etchanan, never fear, you can find a summary and lots of great
commentary here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/
vaethanan_index.htm

and the texts of the Torah portion and haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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