Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat Va'etchanan 2013

Parashat Va'etchanan
Rabbi Janet Burden

19th July 2013

Just as last Shabbat had a special name, Shabbat Chazon, because of its relation to Tisha B’av, so too does this Shabbat.· This is Shabbat Nachamu. It also takes its name from the first word of the week’s haftarah, this time from Isaiah chapter 40. Nachamu, nachamu, ami. This is often translated as “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.”· Isaiah 40 is the first of the haftarot of consolation which we read in the weeks following Tisha b’Av, the day on which Jews all over the world remember the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, where priests and Levites once offered up sacrifices to God.

The fall of the Temple was one of the defining moments of Jewish history.· It was a devastating loss for the people, many of who went into exile.· It is at least in part because of this event that you find Jews all over the world today.· Without the Temple and its sacrificial cult, the Jewish people had to find a new way of being in the world – and a new way of serving God.· Collectively, we were faced with the task of redefining what it meant to be a Jew.· Fortunately, the rabbinic sages that led the people at that time were more than equal to the task.·Because of them, we now worship in synagogues instead of in the great stone Temple.· We offer up to God our prayers (and, I would like to think, also our deeds) instead of the sacrifices of old.· · In a sense, the whole form of our modern worship was born out of one of our people’s greatest tragedies.· Thus we can see how the combination of human creativity and the will to serve God transformed the pain of loss and suffering into something sustaining and beautiful.

Nachamu, nachamu, ami. Isaiah’s words are the first message of comfort given to the Jewish people following this catastrophic event.· They serve as a reminder that no sorrow lasts forever, giving us the strength to face the future.· We do not know what the future holds, but we do know this: eventually, life will return to normal and we will be able to get on with our lives.· That sure knowledge can be a great comfort if we let it.· Nachamu, nachamu ami.

In times of crisis, if we are wise, we will remember the example of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the man most responsible for the survival of the Jewish people and our unique way of life in the wake of the destruction of the Temple.·When Ben Zakkai realised that Jerusalem would be lost, he gathered a group of students together to set up a centre of study in Yavne.· He had to negotiate with the hated Roman authorities for the right to do this, but he did not flinch from the task.· This little academy in what was then an obscure backwater of Israel became our spiritual life raft.· It was this gathering of scholars in Yavne who fixed the canon of Biblical literature, who began standardizing our ritual observances, in short, who made Jewish continuity possible.· In other words, Rabbi Yochanan didn’t just mourn – he organized.· And what he built has long outlasted any Temple.

One of the things that he and the other post-destruction rabbis did was to fix the form of our daily and Shabbat prayers.· They ensured that the Shema, which we read in today’s Torah portion forms an integral part of our worship services. · Its inclusion is both logical and somewhat astonishing, as it is not, in its essence, a prayer.· The Shema is rather both the central affirmation of Jewish faith, followed by a statement of guidelines for living a Jewish life.· Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. “The Eternal One is Our God, the Eternal God is One.”Through these words we affirm that we stand, as a people, in relation to the Divine Unity we call God.· We assert that we are never alone, and that our lives have a sacred purpose.· I believe that this awareness shapes the way we live.·

After we recite this core affirmation as a liturgical formula, we add a second line ordained by our rabbinic sages, although it is not from Torah.· Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L’Olam Va-ed. “Praised for ever be God’s glorious Majesty.” This is to remind us that we are not the absolute masters of the world we inhabit. · All of Creation is understood to be under God’s sovereign rule.· Our sages believed that this perspective would help us to live with humility, respecting and sustaining this world we have been given to inhabit.

The passage then continues:· V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha, b’chol levavcha u-v’chol nafshecha u-v’chol meodecha. “And you shall love the Eternal One your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”.· The repetition of the word “all” here is no mere rhetorical device.· To live as a Jew is an all-consuming task. · Our teachings are meant to shape how we feel about things (represented by the heart), how we think about things (represented by our soul) and how we live out our lives (represented by what is called ‘our might’).· If we do live our lives in accordance with this principle, we Jews can be, collectively and individually, a force for tremendous good in the world.· And we can see for ourselves how much the world needs healing and repair.

Our world is sometimes a scary place.· It often seems like it is full of violence and destruction, full of despair and suffering.· I do not want to belittle this, or pretend that it is not so.· Yet if we allow ourselves to stay focused on it, we will become paralysed out of fear or out of hopelessness. · No doubt, our ancestors also felt overwhelmed by the grim reality of wars and famine.· What they decided to do, however, was to pledge themselves to lives of healing and rebuilding.·They decided, to paraphrase the words of the composer Gustav Mahler, to affirm life nevertheless.· In this way, they lived lives that made a difference:· to themselves, to us their descendents, to the world – and to God.

We needn’t worry that the task will be too big for us.· The rabbis also said, “It is not up to you to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it.”· May God give us the courage and conviction to make necessary hard choices and even sacrifices when it is our turn to do so.