Yom Shlishi, 16 Iyyar 5779
Tuesday, 21 May 2019
Va'etchannan

Rabbi Richard Jacobi
8th August 2014

The name for this Shabbat derives not from the Torah portion, but from the Haftarah that was chosen hundreds of years ago. This Haftarah, from Isaiah chapter 40, begins with the verse “Be comforted, be comforted, My people, says your God.” Shabbat Nachamu is the first Sabbath of comfort or consolation following Tisha B’Av and the mourning for the destruction of the Temple and all other major tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people.

We all need some comforting this year, for the troubling images and news stories of Israel and Gaza, the Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere assail us through all media. The stories, even the news bulletins, are personalised to the extent that we know the first names of Gazan children, flights MH17 passengers, and so on. We cannot distance ourselves from such detail, even if we wanted to, because the faces and stories have become too familiar.

The core message of Isaiah’s imagery is of God’s unfailing love. For the exiles in Babylon, his message of forgiveness and return must have seemed unduly optimistic, yet it came to pass. What would Isaiah be preaching in this week’s context?

Be comforted, my peoples, says the Eternal One, who some also know as Allah

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, Sderot and Ashkelon, to Gaza City, Rafah and Khan Younis.

Declare to them all that their term of strife and fear is over.

They have suffered more than double for their sins.

Let a voice ring out:

Clear in the rubble new spaces for humanity.

Take down the shelters or adapt them for play.

With God’s help, you can create the sources of prosperity.

With every tunnel unused and crumbling, the irrigated land will bring forth crops;

Every school will be providing education, every map will show all towns and villages;

Every hospital will no longer see war injuries, every ambulance only normal events.

Businesses will spring up, jobs will be real and enduring.

Do you not know, have you not heard?

Have you not been told from the very first?

God’s wisdom is for different peoples to share existence.

The creation of diversity is the divine survival mechanism for all species.

There is enough room for all to eat and be satisfied.

This is not impossible, however unlikely it might seem today. I am confident Isaiah would be horrified by the pronouncements of people like Rabbi Dov Lior, who suggested that Jewish law would permit the erasing of the entire Gaza strip to bring peace to Southern Israel. I am also sure that Isaiah would turn to the wiser rabbinic interpretation of a verse in our treasure trove of a Torah portion - chapter 6, verse 18. There we read “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Eternal One, that it may go well with you...” The sages of old pondered why both hayashar (the straight, even, right) and hatov (the good) are both mentioned. They concluded that it is not sufficient for us to do what is right or legal for us to do; our words and our deeds must also meet a higher standard - what is good, ethical, and moral. Another poet, Yehuda Amichai, prophetically captures the importance of going beyond “The Place Where We Are Right”, and I am grateful to Rabbi Ofek Meir at the Leo Baeck Education Centre in Haifa, and Rabbi Neil Janes at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue for bringing this wisdom to me:

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.