The glorious opening words of this week’s haftarah, “Nachamu, nachamu ami,” are often misunderstood as being a cry to the people to be comforted. But the word “nachamu” means “comfort” and not “be comforted” (“tinachamu”). Rather, these powerful words are addressed to the prophets of that time, charging them to comfort the grieving nation with a message of consolation. When we study the text, however, we find that the bulk of the selection speaks of Hashem’s power and might:
“Behold Hashem will come with great strength and that power will dominate.”
“Who measured the waters…or gauged the heavens…(Who) weighed the mountains and the hills?”
“Who taught Him wisdom? Who explained knowledge to Him?”
“All nations are like dust to Him….”
“To whom can you compare God?”
And many more similar proclamations.
So, are these the words of comfort that Yeshayahu and his contemporaries were to deliver to the people? Is this what will bring the nation solace after the horrendous losses and tragedies they suffered? It certainly appears as if Hashem regards the theme of comfort only as a message of secondary importance at this crucial time.
A closer reading of the haftarah, however, will clarify exactly what God wants the people to know and how the message is one of comfort.
God promises a glorious future when the people will return and “every valley will be raised and every mountain will be lowered,” thereby making the return easier for His nation. He comforts the people by assuring them that no enemies could oppose them, by proclaiming, “All nations are like nothing before Him.” And He strengthens their resolve by reminding them that “He turns rulers into nothingness.”
Hashem is speaking to a defeated nation who understandably doubts the glorious future that the prophets predict. After all, wasn’t their God “defeated” (rachmana litzlan) by the Babylonian gods? Wasn’t His “house” just destroyed? How can He promise all of this and grant us hope and a modicum of comfort?
And so the prophets respond by reminding the people of Hashem’s great powers, of His great accomplishments and unparalleled abilities. He is God Who can make all of this happen! He can take a defeated nation and have them march triumphantly again; He can make a people, recently decimated in death camps, into a powerful army. And He can comfort a population who believe they have no future—through describing a glorious future.
“Nachamu, nachamu ami”—through Hashem’s promises of a bright future.
“Nachamu, nachamu ami”—through those promises that we have seen fulfilled before our very eyes.
By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.