Yom Shlishi, 16 Iyyar 5779
Tuesday, 21 May 2019
Parashat Shoftim 2013

Parashat Shoftim
Rabbi Alexandra Wright

9 August 2013

Between the 9 Av and Rosh Hashanah, there are seven weeks – a unit of time that marks the weeks and days until the great festivals of repentance and atonement, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.·Included in those seven weeks are the four weeks of Ellul, which began this week.· It is during Ellul that prayers of Selichot – forgiveness - are recited and Psalm 27, a psalm of confident faith and longing to see God’s face, is also said daily.

The seven weeks are marked also by the seven Haftarot of consolation – sheva d’nechamta – each one drawn from Deutero-Isaiah, the anonymous prophet of the sixth century who speaks words of hope and comfort to his people who have suffered displacement and humiliation and become migrants in a foreign land.

This week’s Haftarah – the last twelve verses of Chapter 51 and first twelve of Chapter 52 – is among the most beautiful and uplifting of passages in the prophetic canon.· ‘I, I am the One who comforts you,’ are the opening words – Anochi, anochi hu m’nachem’chem. It is God, God alone who provides comfort, who mitigates the terror of His people.· I have put My words in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand, be neither frightened of the oppressor, nor fearful of the grave.· Yes, I have punished you, says God, ‘you have drunk from God’s hand the cup of wrath’, you have known devastation and destruction, but I am still the One who defends you, who makes sure you lack nothing, who comforts you in your desolation and misery.

Chapter 52 opens with a passage known as the ‘Ode to Zion’, the prophet’s exhortation to the Holy City of Jerusalem to ‘awake’, to clothe herself in strength, to array herself in robes of splendour, to shake off the dust and strip the chain from her neck.· Like a slave woman, she was sold for nothing, but now will be redeemed without money and must be prepared to welcome back the refugees into her ruins. The imagery of a trafficked woman has a dangerous contemporary resonance.

These verses are filled with words of comfort and consolation, but also with evidence of Israel’s great suffering.· Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his commentary, The Prophets, writes: ‘Israel’s misery seemed out of all proportion to her guilt, and its justice belied by other facts of history.’· In other words, did ancient Israel deserve the punishment that was meted out to her; was this justice?· ‘Agony for Israel and glory for Babylon?· The beloved of God bruised and despised while the ‘mistress of kingdoms’ (47:5) ‘felt secure in…wickedness’ (47:10)?’

The prophet seems to ask whether God actually cared for his people, or was it beyond God’s power to save those for whom He cared.· But ‘to comfort is to throw a glimmer of meaning in a cave of wretchedness’ – Heschel’s words again.

Deutero-Isaiah teaches us how to find meaning in the darkest of hours, in the most miserable of all circumstances.· Leo Baeck in Terezin teaching Torah or philosophy, the refugee or asylum seeker, tortured in his native land, forced to seek refuge in a foreign country and struggling to contribute his own skills and gifts to a host land that may not offer hospitality or warmth; and this masterful, poetic prophet of the sixth century exploring the mystery of God’s ways in his contemplation of the God of creation ‘who spread out the heavens and established the earth…[who] stir[s] up the sea and make[s] its waves roar.’

Here in our Haftarah, Israel becomes the suffering servant of God – God has placed upon Israel the task of suffering for others (Heschel, p. 192); she symbolises God’s grief, God’s suffering, God’s exile from the world.· In these Haftarot that speak of the wretchedness of suffering and the glory of redemption, we learn that God cannot be indifferent to human suffering; God’s role to extricate people from despondency and attach meaning to past and present misery is also our very human role and mission; because we are God’s people and because we cannot turn away from the suffering of those whom we call our sisters and brothers.