Haftarah Parashat Ekev
Shabbat Mevarekhim Hahodesh
August 4, 2018 | 23 Av 5778
This week’s haftarah is the second of seven special haftarot which follow Tisha b’Av. They are known as the Shiva d’Nehamta – the Seven [haftarot] of consolation, and their intention, as the name implies, is to bring solace to a beleaguered nation suffering from the loss of its sacred center and bereft of control over its homeland. Last week’s haftarah opened with the words – “Nahamu, nahamu ami – Comfort, O comfort My people” (Isaiah 40:1) – most certainly strong words of support. The opening verse of this week’s haftarah is anything but supportive: “Zion says: ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forsaken Me.” (49:14) Although the prophet immediately offers a rejoinder to these words, the impression they leave is still deeply felt.
Centuries later, following the trauma of the destruction of the Second Temple and seemingly endless Roman domination, the rabbinic sages of Eretz Yisrael were also in need of consolation. This verse apparently struck a painful cord in the consciousness of some of them. In a midrash from the land of Israel during the Talmudic period, we see a struggle over how to digest its significance.
The following midrash tries to answer this question: ‘Rabbi Azariah and Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Resh Lakish: You find that when Israel’s sins brought about the entry of Israel’s enemies to Jerusalem, they took the heroes of Israel and tied their hands behind their backs. The Holy One Blessed be He said: It is written: ‘I will be with him in trouble’, and since My children are in trouble, can I remain at ease? (Psalms 91:15) As it were, God bound His right arm behind His back before the enemy, for as long as My people are enslaved, so am I. When My people are freed so will My right hand be freed.” (abridged and adapted from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 17:5, Mandelbaum ed. p. 286-7)
This surprisingly anthropomorphic metaphor is the first response of the midrash to the possibility that God has abandoned His people. It claims that God does not abandon His people, rather He practices “radical” empathy by suffering its suffering and experiencing its helplessness. However, this midrash does not end here. It has a shocking rejoinder to this view: “Rabbi Elazar [taught] in the name of Rabbi Yossi bar Zimra: ‘In the future, a Divine Voice will proclaim on the mountain tops, saying, Sing unto God a new song (Psalms 96:1) … Said the Holy One Blessed He: In the future, My right hand will perform all of the miracles [necessary for redemption]. Still, Zion will say: ‘The Lord has forsaken Me, the Lord has forgotten me.’ (Ibid.)
According to this ending, people will not know how to digest God’s redemptive actions. Even when good things happen, past trauma will diminish their ability to acknowledge them. The dialectic expressed in this midrash is very real. On the one hand, it wants us to have a sense that God is with us in our trials and tribulations, suffering along with us. On the other, it wants us to be aware that God will ultimately end our suffering and redeem us. Sadly, we may not be able to appreciate it, leaving us still questioning God.
Serious religious people live with a certain degree of uncertainty and insecurity. This is inevitable for thinking and feeling people. As the midrash indicates, it is to Judaism’s great credit that that its sages had a profound awareness of this and did not shy away from expressing it.