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Haftarah Parshat Vaetchanan

Haftarah Parshat Vaetchanan – Shabbat Nahamu (Isaiah 40:1-26)
August 20, 2016 / 16 Av 5776

This week commences the Shiva d’Nehamta, the seven haftarot of consolation, which follow Tisha b’Av. This Shabbat is often called Shabbat Nahamu on account the first word of the haftarah – “Nahamu” or “Comfort”. These seven haftarot are taken from the second part of the book of Isaiah, chapter 40 on, which appear to have been composed by a prophet from the period of the return from Babylonian exile. This point will become important momentarily.

The prophet opens this section of messages with a grand message of consolation from God. He declares that the period of exile is over and the nation should be comforted since it has received its full measure of punishment and is now ready for the return: “Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of the Lord double (kiflaim) for her sins.” (40:1-2)

The solace of this message is somewhat bitter since it has come as a result of what seems like an unfair punishment. What?! God punishments are out of proportion to the nation’s sins? Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (11th century Spain) probably captures the prophet’s intent when he says: [It means] that that they took double the punishment of other nations”, namely, the message is hyperbolic. It may, however, have been a response to a prophecy made by Jeremiah, the prophet of the destruction: “I (God) will pay them in full, nay, doubly for their iniquity and sins because they have defiled My land…” (Jeremiah 16:18) This would be an indication that this prophecy from Isaiah is later than the first part of the book.

For many classical commentators, however, the theological dilemma caused by this verse remained. Rashi simply accepts such a punishment as conceivable using the Jeremiah verse as proof: “And if you should say, is it possible that the justice of the Holy One Blessed Be He punishes double for one’s sins, we find it explicitly in Scripture [in the verse from Jeremiah].” Targum Jonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, turns the supposed punishment to Israel’s advantage: “For in the future, when the exile has been completed, when your sins have been forgiven, you will receive a cup of consolation form God as if you had been stricken twice for each sin.” Similarly, Rabbi Yitzchak Abrabanel (15-16th century Spain, Italy) explains: “Their sins have already been cleansed and it remains that it is as if the Holy One Blessed Be He has borrowed from them and must pay them well on account of their having received more than their share of punishment.”

To my mind, the best explanation of the prophet’s message is found in the apparent dialogue between this verse and the verse from Jeremiah. Jeremiah challenged his people with the threat of punishment to attempt to influence their wrongful behavior. When the tragedy actually befell them, they internalized his message. The prophet in our haftarah co-opts Jeremiah’s message to turn it on its head. He wants the people to take solace in the knowledge that the harsh punishment of exile is over and that the reward in store for them will be commensurate with the harshness of their punishment, allowing them a new beginning to rebuild their lives after returning from exile.

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.

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