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Parashat Vaethanan 5783

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vaethanan and Shabbat Nahamu

July 24, 2023
by Rabbi Greg Schindler (’09)

This week’s Shabbat bears a special name, “Shabbat Nahamu” – the Shabbat of Comfort.

Shabbat Nahamu comes on the heels of the saddest day on the Jewish calendar — Tisha b’Av. This is the day on which both Temples were destroyed. Moreover, other catastrophes fell on this date – the day Bar Kokhba (the leader of the revolt against the Romans) was killed in 133 C.E., the day in 1290 when the Jews were expelled from England, the day in 1492 when the Jews were forced to convert or flee Spain. And, in 1914, the day on which World War I, and the horrors to follow, began.

Tisha b’Av, the Rabbis say, is a day set aside for sorrows. And not only our national sorrows, but our personal ones as well.

It makes you wonder why we don’t just curl up in a ball and stay under the covers every Tisha b’Av.

But we don’t hide from our sadness; we re-live it. We sit on the ground, fast, recite Kinot (dirges) and read Eikha (Lamentations). We mourn. We embrace our sorrow. For it, too, is part of life.

Then comes Shabbat Nahamu. The name is taken from the special haftarah from Isaiah that we read on this day — a haftarah that displays profound sensitivity to the needs of a mourner. (“Speak to the heart of Jerusalem.” [Isa. 40:2])

At a time when reason cannot reach us, the haftarah commences with soothing words softly repeated, like a parent hugging a gently sobbing child: “Nahamu nahamu – Comfort comfort”. (Isa. 40:1)

The next word provides further reassurance. “Ami – My people.“ (v. 1)

We are not alone in our suffering. We still bear a special relationship with G-d. We are part of something larger.

But, we may wonder, is G-d’s concern for us only at the level of a People? Does G-d take heed of our personal plight?

Why do you say, O Jacob,
Why declare, O Israel,
“My way is hid from G-d,
My cause is ignored by my G-d”? (v. 27)

Isaiah has already provided an answer to this question before we ask it:[1]

Lift high your eyes and see:
Who created these?
The One who sends out their host by count,
Who calls them each by name.” (v. 26)

G-d knows all of Creation by name.[2] G-d knows each of us and our struggles.

If G-d is aware of our lives, then why didn’t G-d prevent our loss? Could it be, as some argue, that G-d is not powerful enough to help? Or has G-d ceded control over certain aspects of Creation to the natural world?

No, says Isaiah. Nothing is beyond G-d’s Power:
Who measured the waters with a hand’s hollow,
And fixed the skies with a span,
And meted the earth’s dust with a measure,
And weighed the mountains with a scale
And the hills with a balance? (v. 12)

Have you not heard?

The Eternal is G-d from of old,
Creator of the earth from end to end,
Who never grows faint or weary. (v. 28)

The prophet paints a tender portrait of G-d’s loving-care for each of us.

Like a shepherd who pastures the flock,
[G-d] gathers up the lambs
And carries them in G-d’s Bosom. (v. 11)

Can you close your eyes for a few moments, and imagine being held in this way?

During my deepest mourning, the greatest comfort wasn’t what people said. It was simply that they were present. Likewise, the traditional blessing that we offer to mourners is “HaMakom yinahem” – “May the Place comfort you.

Isaiah assures us that – however vast our desert of sorrow, however deep our chasm of grief, however steep the climb up the mountain may seem – G-d is there with us:

A voice rings out:

“Clear the desert – a road for G-d!
Level the wilderness – a highway for our G-d!
Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount made low.
Let the rugged ground become level, and the ridges become a plain.
The Glory of G-d shall appear.” (v. 3-4)

At times like this, we may question the meaning of our lives. What is the point of it all if we’re just going to die? Isaiah acknowledges our questioning:

“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 G-d blows on them.
Indeed, people are but grass.’” (v. 6-7)

Having started down this path of existential inquiry, we may wonder how it is possible that we – and the world – exist at all? Couldn’t a more logical argument be made for nothing to exist?

“Have you not discerned how the earth was founded? 
It is [G-d] who is enthroned above the vault of the earth,
So that its inhabitants seem as grasshoppers;
Who spread out the skies like gauze,
Stretched them out like a tent to dwell in (v. 21-22)

Lift high your eyes and see:
Who created these” (v. 26)

Yes, in our soulful deliberations, we may come to a fresh realization that there is a Creator.

But as we cry out in our grief, “Why, G-d, why?”, we realize that knowing that there is a Creator does not mean that we can understand the Ways of the Creator:

Who has plumbed the spirit of G-d?
Can anyone disclose G-d’s plan?
Whom did [G-d] consult, and who bestowed understanding,
Providing guidance in the way of justice?
Who taught [G-d] knowledge
And made known the path of wisdom? (v. 13-14)

Where can we turn in our time of grief? Can we insulate ourselves from our pain and our fear of mortality by clinging ever more tightly to this physical world?

To whom can you liken G-d? …

The idol? A woodworker shaped it,
a smith overlaid it with gold, forging links of silver.
He chooses a wood that will not rot,
then seeks a skilled craftsman
to make an idol that will not topple. (v. 18-20)

The gods of silver and gold in Isaiah’s day remain no less present in ours. But, try as we might, we cannot construct from the purely material that which can transcend the material. False gods shall surely topple:

[G-d] gives over the weighty ones to nothingness,
Rulers of the earth as if emptiness
Hardly are they planted,
Hardly are they sown,
Hardly has their stem taken root in earth,
When [G-d] blows upon them and they dry up,
And the storm bears them off like straw. (v. 22-24)

Isaiah challenges us to face the reality that has confronted us from the moment of our birth:

Young children may grow faint and weary,
And young men shall surely stumble. (v. 30)

How can we avoid withering like the grass, being blown away as chaff?

Grass withers, flowers fade
But the word of our G-d will stand forever.(v. 7)

According to the prophet, only by clinging to the Eternal can we overcome our temporal lives.

Only by clinging to the The Place (HaMakom) can we surpass our physical limitations.

Then, Isaiah assures us, we may gain newfound strength to carry on.

Then our wings may once again lift us from the depths:

But they who trust in G-d shall renew their strength
As eagles grow new plumes:
They shall run and not grow weary,
They shall march and not grow faint. (v. 31)

I know that this is not easy for many of us, especially in our time of darkest grief.
When our faith is sorely tested, many turn away from belief in G-d. Or our anger keeps us distant.
And – to modern minds steeped in rationality – just how strong is our belief in G-d, anyway?

But perhaps our grief has provided a rare opportunity — a window for thinking about our life.
Perhaps experiencing something utterly beyond everyday reality has opened our minds to that which is beyond everyday reality.

Once, when my children were young, I overheard them talking about death. As they considered this extraordinary notion, one of my children began visualizing what death would mean.
“I will never see my friends again,” she said. “I will never see my family again.”
As the picture became clearer in her mind, her eyes teared up and she began gently sobbing.

It was then that one of my (even younger) children offered these words of comfort.
“It’s Ok to cry.” he said. “That’s only your soul opening up.”

It is my hope and prayer that our tears open our souls.

Nahamu, nahamu.
[1] The seemingly-reverse order of the verses is akin to the Talmud dictum: “Reish Lakish said: The Holy One, Blessed Be, does not inflict the Jewish people until first making their remedy.” (Megillah 13b)

[2] While this verse on its face may be referring to G-d’s knowledge of heavenly bodies or angels, the prophet makes plain that G-d’s Knowledge is unbounded and that G-d’s concern for Creation knows no end.

Rabbi Greg Schindler received semikha in 2009 (5769). While at AJR, he was honored to serve as President of the Student Association. He is a community rabbi in Westport, CT where he conducts classes in Talmud and Tanakh. He has led Children’s High Holiday services for over 20 years. Each year, he writes and directs a new Yom Kippur comedic play based on the Book of Jonah , including “Jonah-gan’s Island”. “Batmensch”, “SpongeJonah SquarePants”, “Horton Hears an Oy” and more.