Monday, January 25, 2021

Parshiyot Nitzavim-Vayelech

This week’s haftarah, the seventh of the post-Tish’a B’Av selections, completes the series of the haftarot of consolation and, in the view of Tosafot (Megillah 31b), it therefore stands as the one that offers greatest comfort and consolation to Israel. Understandably, we ask what Chazal saw in this haftarah that made them consider its words of consolation even greater than those of the last six haftarot. After all, we can hardly imagine a prophecy that exceeds those promises we heard in the past readings, visions that predict how God would “like a shepherd, gather His flock into His bosom” (ch. 40), or “He will make her wilderness like Eden…joy and gladness will be found there” (49). These readings are replete with glorious promises of the future, so how did our rabbis judge which ones are greater or more comforting?

I believe that our ancient scholars did not base their comment on the relative impact that the comforting visions would have on the bereaved nation. Indeed, it is impossible to judge that, since people are different from one another and react differently from each other. That prophecy that comforts one may have no impact upon another, for each person may be comforted by different prophecies. What may have well swayed our rabbis to see this final haftarah as the most comforting one is by simply looking at the opening of each selection in which the navi Yishayahu describes the reaction of Israel.


We first read that the prophets are charged with comforting the nation (“Nachamu, Nachamu Ami”) who are deaf to their calls, believing that they have been abandoned by God (“Vatomer Tziyon Azavani Hashem”). Even after being reassured that Hashem has not left them, the people remain disconsolate (“Aniya so’arah LO nuchama”) and so the navi tries to assure them that Hashem would comfort them (“Anochi, Anochi Hu menachemchem”). Continuing his words of encouragement, Yishayahu calls for Israel to rejoice (“rani akara lo yalada”) and to rise and shine as the glory of God shines upon them (“Kumi Ori”).

It is only—indeed finally—in this last haftarah that, in its opening words, we hear Israel expressing her confidence in the prophet’s promises and, for that reason, they will rejoice (“Sos asis baShem”). This is, in my mind, the basis for Chazal’s view that this reading reflects the greatest of previous attempts to console the nation—because the people themselves tell us so. The first words of each haftarah present us with an ongoing conversation, says the 15th-century commentator, Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, and, when seen that way, we better understand the words of Tosafot in Masechet Megillah.

Yet, on this Shabbat, only a few days before Rosh Hashanah, I feel it proper to share with you the thoughts of the Malbim in explaining the words of joy and happiness used in the first pasuk. The term “sos” from the word “sason” connotes an external joy, a celebration of happiness, whereas the term “tagel,” from the word “gilah,” is indicative of an internal joy, one that simply is exuded by a person overwhelmed with delight and elation. Rosh Hashanah is not one of the shalosh regalim and, as a result, has no mitzvah of simcha. Many assume that it would be wrong, on such a serious and solemn day, to dance and celebrate. And yet, Ezra HaSofer told the nation not to cry or be saddened on this day but to celebrate with food and drink because “your joy in Hashem will be your strength.” (Nechemiah 8:10)

As we enter the new year, this is a message we must take to heart. Our joy in Hashem, expressed by the opening words of our haftarah, our confidence in His words of a promised geula that we have been chanting for seven weeks, must strengthen our belief that God will grant us a good new year, a year of improving health and worldwide healing, of blessing and of strength. And, together with these gifts, we can truly enjoy a year of peace.

“Hashem oz l’amo yiten—Hashem yevarech et amo vashalom.”

Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.