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Nachamu: But What Is the Comfort?

Parshat Va’etchanan

Shabbat Nachamu

The first pasuk of this week’s haftarah, that opens the 40th perek of Sefer Yeshayahu as well, marks a turnaround in the prophecies of the navi. Until this point, the messages Yeshayahu shared with his people were ones of warning, filled with descriptions of the punishments that awaited them were they to continue in their sinful ways. From this verse onward the theme of the prophet becomes one of comfort and consolation. The bulk of these final chapters, as Rashi points out, are replete with description of the ideal world that awaits Israel as Hashem returns to them and returns them to the land.

Often unknown, however, is the fact that these words of “Nachamu Nachamu Ami” were not addressed to the nation itself. God is not saying BE comforted, My people, but rather He is addressing the prophets themselves and calling them to go and comfort the people. Just as he charged Yeshayahu to offer words of warning in his earlier visions, so now he charges him to deliver warm words of comfort and solace.

And yet, the message of the haftarah does not seem to be one of comfort at all. In fact, it appears to be no more than praise of Hashem: His power, His wisdom, His justice. Certainly, all of these attributes are impressive and important to know; but are they comforting to a bereaved and suffering people? I recall asking myself this question years ago, as I looked to the words of Yeshayahu for comfort and for succor in the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av. I simply did not understand why, beyond the opening verse, there was reason to have this selection read on such a Shabbat. Surely there were more comforting visions, more consoling thoughts uttered by our nevi’im! Why then the choice of this perek at this crucial time, I wondered.

It was only after studying the chapter more carefully that I realized the thought of Chazal in choosing this haftarah for this Shabbat. For the ancients who suffered exile and for the 2,000 years that followed, words alone would sound empty and of little comfort for those who suffered so and who shed millions of tears. Promises, after all, are simple to make, but difficult to keep. Even the prophet understood this and declares: “Kol omer ‘k’ra’ va’omar: ‘ma Ekra?’ —A voice proclaims, ‘Call out’ but I say, ‘What shall I call?’” Yeshayahu bemoans that all of flesh is but dried grass now. What can he say to have them believe that the promises will be kept?

And so Hashem tells him to remind the people Who is making the promises. Before commencing on the next six haftarot that see a bright future and a complete redemption for the suffering nation, Yeshayahu proceeds to impress upon the people that it is the All-Powerful, the All Mighty, the All Capable who is making these promises. The praises that fill the bulk of today’s reading were meant to impress upon Bnei Yisrael of that generation and of future generations that Hashem is the power and is capable of fulfilling all His promises—no matter how difficult it might be to believe them.

I have often wondered what an ancient Israelite or a Judean would say if he were told that his people would be exiled from their land, persecuted, oppressed, pogromed and gassed for 2,000 years…and then he would be taken to the Yerushalayim of today. We would have him walk around the construction cranes, dodge the oncoming traffic and hop on to the Rakevet Kal to get to the Kotel. Would he believe his eyes? Do we?

“Nachamu, Nachamu Ami” because the All-Powerful is, indeed, keeping His promises!

By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler


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

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