Haftarah Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech
August 31, 2002
In this last haftarah of the Sheva d’Nechamta (the Seven Shabbatot of Consolation), the final verse (63:9) should serve as a summation of the idea of consolation. Instead it presents us with an interpretative dilemma. There are two different traditions of how this verse should be read, each of which carries a different message with regard to God’s relationship to His people. The focus of this problem is on how we are to read a single word. The “written” tradition (the ktiv) records this word “lo” with the Hebrew letters ‘lamed’ and ‘alef’ meaning “not”. The verse, according to this tradition should be understood to mean: “God will not (lo) multiply their [the people of Israel’s] troubles. Rather, He will save them from it.” (see Targum Yonaton and Radak) The “read” tradition (the kri) understood the word “lo” to be spelled with the letters ‘lamed’ and ‘vav’ meaning “to him”. The resulting translation would be “In all of their troubles God is also troubled”.
Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel, the 14th-15th Spanish statesman and Bible commentator, used the example of the experience of the children of Israel during their trek through the desert to explain the first interpretation (ktiv). He explains that during the desert trek, God was never the source of their troubles. Instead, He was there to save them in their every trial and tribulation. God was not to be seen as an enemy. Whenever they were in trouble, God was a source of salvation for them. Similarly, God is always present to help us in our time of need.
Abrabanel explains the second interpretation of this verse with a teaching of the famous sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: ‘Beloved are the people of Israel before the Holy One blessed be He. Every place where people of Israel were exiled, the Shechina (the Divine Presence) was with them. When they went into exile in Egypt, the Shechina was with them… When they were exiled to Edom, the Shechina was with them…. When they were exiled to Babylonia, the Shechina was with them… So too, when they returned from exile, God was with them. God’s interest was not in their suffering. Their pain and anguish were His pain and anguish.” Here we note that God empathizes with our suffering and He is with us in both our suffering and in our triumphs.
Both of these approaches bring us consolation during these trying days. In particular, as we approach Rosh Hashanah, the strength of God’s saving power and His constant presence and empathy will give us the strength to repair ourselves and draw closer to His Presence.