Parashat VaEtchanan

Comfort, Oh Comfort!
By Hazzan Marcia Lane

I just got back from Israel. A friend, who has never been there, asked me, “Were you okay? Did you feel comfortable everywhere?” The nature of the question is similar to one that was posed to me right here in my home-town of Long Branch, NJ: “I parked my car in that block. Am I going to feel comfortable going back after dark?” The implication, of course, is that there is danger in certain places or in certain times of day. We should be on our guard in these places or at these times. We should find no comfort there.

Leaving aside the widespread – and unfounded – feeling among some people that the whole of Israel (or parts of Long Branch!) is a danger zone, there are certainly times and places that fill us with feelings
of discomfort. This period of economic uncertainty is probably one of them for many of us. The time leading up to the holy days of Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur are another.

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Nahamu – the Shabbat of Comfort – named for the first words of the haftarah, which is from the book of Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort oh My people, says your God.” But even the nature of this comfort is in itself a little stressful: “You have served your term and your iniquity is expiated.” In other words, you’ve done your time. Hey, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Coming as it does after the “punishment” of Tisha B’Av, it’s no wonder that the people need not one but seven weeks of comforting, uplifting haftarot.

It might seem that the haftarah is more connected to the calendar than to the parashah, which is Va-ethannan. But even in that word, “I supplicated,” we have the hints of connection. In this, his deathbed oration, Moses says, “I supplicated to the Lord … ‘let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land that is across the Jordan’ … But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account…” (Deuteronomy 3:23-26)

However, God never claims to be punishing Moses on account of the sins of the people. Moses declares to the people how he pleaded to be allowed to go into the land of Canaan even though God has already told him, “I pardon, as you have requested. Nevertheless, none of those who have seen My Presence … shall see the land that I promised to their fathers.” (Numbers 14:20 – 23) Moses already knows he can’t go into the land. Whether it is because Moses struck a rock, or because he isn’t the right military leader for the next phase of our history, or because 120 years is plenty, he is not going to cross the Jordan. His comfort will come in the view of the land from the top of Mt. Pisgah.

For the rest of us, perhaps the connection between the haftarah and the parashah comes in the core content, the repetition (in a slightly altered form) of the Aseret Ha-dibrot – more commonly called the Ten Commandments, and the statement of the Sh’ma. Even though we, the people Israel – the people who struggle, who wrestle with God – have been given signs of God’s uniqueness, reasonable laws to follow, and an inheritance of a small but remarkable land, a land “zavat halav ud’vash,” we will still be prone to the sins of idol worship and wildly
inappropriate behavior. We will face the punishment of exile and the destruction of our Temple not once but twice. We will be reduced to a remnant of our former selves. Our 401K’s will be rendered worthless. How many of us will actually find the words of Isaiah comforting?

I just heard a re-play of an episode of “Speaking of Faith,” an NPR program about ethics and meaning. The Quaker philosopher Parker Palmer was speaking about depression, and the redeeming features of being brought low. He reminded listeners that when we are in the depths we can actually perceive our connectedness with others. The need for help, for comfort if you will, is a way of relating to others with humility. When we are “on top” we see ourselves as being independent, strong, capable of handling anything the world throws at us. When we are distraught, in bad health, or simply scared, we cannot deny our frailty, the human need for help, for love, and for forgiveness. Nahamu, nahamu, ami. Comfort, oh comfort my people!


Hazzan Marcia Lane was ordained by AJR in 2004 and serves as the cantor at Temple Beth El in Oakhurst, NJ.