Va’etchanan and Shabbat Nachamu: Clearing a Path

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’etchanan and Shabbat Nachamu

Now, back to the Torah readings. . . as we’ve been discussing, the
three weeks before the Ninth of Av [Tisha B’Av] are times of
introspection, with special haftarot of “rebuke” calling the people to
account.

However, immediately after Tisha B’Av, the theme of the the hafatarot
switches from rebuke to comfort and consolation, and these readings
continue for 7 weeks, until Rosh Hashana. In fact, this week’s
haftarah gives this Shabbat its name: “Shabbat Nachamu” or the
“Shabbat of Comfort” (in the sense of console or encourage), taken
from the first verse of Yeshayahu, chapter 40:

“Comfort, oh comfort My people,
Says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
And declare to her
That her term of service is over . . . .

A voice rings out:

‘Clear in the desert
A road for the Lord!
Level in the wilderness
A highway for our God!’ ” (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 40:1-3)

On the surface, it appears that the Yeshayahu is speaking in the name
of God, telling him (Yeshayahu) and others to “comfort My people,”
while in the next verses, he (the prophet) is telling the people
themselves to “clear in the desert a road for the Lord.” The “highway
for our God” (or “of our God”) seems to be a reference to returning
from exile: that is, the people in exile will return along a straight
road, right through the wilderness, with few obstacles.

So far, so good. Our friend Samson Raphael Hirsch- a great rabbi who
lived in Germany in the 1800’s- notices that in the first verse,
“comfort my people” is in the future (or imperative) tense, while “a
voice rings out” is in the present tense. (Tenses work differently in
Biblical Hebrew than in English, but let’s take this interpretation as
homily rather than linguistics.)

For Hirsch, “comfort my people” is a promise to be fully fulfilled
only in the future, when history is healed and humankind has overcome
its propensity for self-destruction. “Clear in the desert a road” is a
call, now, to us- we’re never going to get to the place where we can
console each other, in the future, if we don’t clear a path to God,
today. That road is not concrete (in both senses of the word) but an
inner path- we need to clear within ourselves the obstacles to
returning to God, and what sustains us along that difficult challenge
is the hope given by the first verse, that our efforts are not in
vain, that consolation for the pains of the past is promised.

Hirsch’s reading of these verses (which I have in turn paraphrased and
interpreted) is an encapsulation of the spiritual challenge of this
season: to slowly grow towards the Days of Awe by “clearing the path”
within ourselves, so that we can renew our sense of deep connection to
God, Torah and Israel on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It’s worth
noting hear that the word “halacha,” often mistranslated as “law” (in
the sense of “Jewish law”) comes from the word for “walk” or “go”-
Judaism itself is our path, our way of going forward in the world, our
“road to God.” Someday, our world will be fully healed, but to get
there, each one of us has to take small steps, today.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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