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Haftarah Parshat Vaetchanan – Shabbat Nahamu

Haftarah Parshat Vaetchanan – Shabbat Nahamu (Isaiah 40:1-26)
August 9, 2014/13 Av 5774

Rabbinic theology was often shaped by careful reading of Scripture. This means that word patterns and unusual expressions could inspire religious ideas. In other word, the sages were not exclusively inspired by explicit messages found in the Bible; they were also cued by the manner in which they read sacred writ. This week’s haftarah , the first of seven special haftarot of consolation (Shiva d’nehamta) which follow Tisha b’Av , opens with the words “Nahamu, nahamu  – Comfort, comfort”.  The following midrash is triggered both by word associations and by this particular word repetition:

You find that with the thing through which Israel sinned they were punished, and with the same thing they were comforted. They sinned with ‘head’, were punished with it and comforted with it. They sinned with ‘head’, as it is written: ‘Let us make a head, and return into Egypt (Numbers 14:4); were punished with ‘head’, as it is written: ‘The whole head is sick’ (Isaiah I:5); and are comforted with ‘head’, as it is written: ‘And their king is passed on before them, and the Lord at the head of them (Micah 2:13). They sinned with ‘ear’, as it is written: ‘They stopped their ears, that they might not hear (Zechariah 7:11); were punished with ‘ear’, as it is written: ‘Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of every one that hears it shall tingle (I Samuel 3:11); and are comforted with ‘ear’, as it is written: ‘And your ears shall hear a word, saying: This is the way’ (Isaiah 30:21). They sinned with ‘eye’, as it is written, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched-forth necks and wanton eyes (Isaiah 3:16); were punished with ‘eye’, as it is written: ‘My eyes flow with tears’ (Lamentations I:16); and are comforted with ‘eye’, as it is written: ‘For every eye shall behold the Lord’s return to Zion’  (Isaiah 52: 8). They sinned with ‘mouth’, as it is written: ‘And every mouth speaks impiety’ (Isaiah 9:16); were punished with ‘mouth’, as it is written: ‘And they devour Israel with greedy mouths’ (ibid. 11); and are comforted with ‘mouth’, as it is written: ‘Then was our mouth filled with laughter’ (Psalm 126:2). They sinned with ‘tongue’, as it is written: ‘And they bend their tongue for treachery and not for honesty’ (Jeremiah 9:2); were punished with ‘tongue’, as it is written: ‘The tongue of the sucking child cleaves to the roof of his mouth for thirst’ (Lamentations 4:4); and are comforted with ‘tongue’, as it is written: ‘And our tongue with singing’ (Ps. 126:2). They sinned with ‘heart’, as it is written: ‘They harden their hearts like flint’ (Zechariah 7:12); were punished with ‘heart’, as it is written: ‘And every heart is sick’ (Isaiah 1:5); and are comforted with ‘heart’, as it is written: ‘Bid Jerusalem to take heart’ (Ibid. 40:2). They sinned with ‘hand’, as it is written: ‘Your hands are full of blood’ (Ibid. 1:15); were punished with ‘hand’, as it is written: ‘The hands of women full of compassion have cooked their own children’ (Lamentations 4:10); and are comforted with ‘hand’, as it is written: ‘The Lord will set His hand again to redeeming’ (Isaiah 9:11). They sinned with ‘foot’, as it is written: ‘For their feet run to evil’ (Proverbs 1:16); were punished with ‘ foot ‘, as it is written: ‘Before your feet stumble upon the mountains of twilight’ (Jeremiah 13:16); and are comforted with ‘foot’, as it is written: ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of good tidings’ (Isaiah 52:7). They sinned doubly, as it is written: ‘Jerusalem has grievously sinned’ (Lamentations 1:8); were punished doubly, as it is written: ‘She has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins’ (Isaiah 40:2); and are comforted doubly, as it is written: ‘Comfort, o comfort My people, said your God (Ibid. 1).’” (adapted from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 16:11 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 278-9)

This midrash is built on associations. The author found a variety of places in the Tanakh (Bible) where in one place a word or phrase is associated with a sin; elsewhere, where it is associated with a punishment and then another place where it associated with divine consolation. At the end of midrash, it finally returns to the beginning of our haftarah, this time based on place in the Tanakh where words are coupled. This literary device enabled its author to remind us that our actions have consequences. When we do wrong, there will be repercussions. This lesson seems obvious but it is a lesson we human beings often forget. It also wants us to know that life does not end there. God will give us the strength to renew ourselves and rebuild after we have erred and been punished. In Judaism, despair is never a life option.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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