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Parshat Vaetchanan

Parshat Vaetchanan – Shabbat Nahamu (Isaiah 40:1-26)
August 1, 2015 / 18 Av 5775

The three haftarot before Tisha b’Av (Tlata d’Poranuta – the Three Haftarot of Admonition) and the seven haftarot after it (Shiva d’Nechamta – the Seven Haftarot of Consolation) are the earliest recorded haftarot. We know about them because there are drashot about them in a midrashic collection from the Talmudic period called Pesikta d’Rav Kahana (4th-5th century CE; Eretz Yisrael). These haftarot are unusual in another way since most of the other haftarot or prophetic readings recited during the year are linked thematically in one way or another to the weekly Torah readings. While not thematically connected to the parshiyot with which they are read, the ten haftarot mentioned above will perpetually be linked with specific Torah readings. The first chapter of Isaiah (Hazon Yishayahu), a harsh prophecy, will always be read with Parshat Devarim, where Moses chides his people but what links the conciliatory words of this week’s haftarah (Nahamu nahamu ami – Comfort, comfort My people) with Parshat Vaetchanan?

This question led some darshanim to seek some “organic” link between this Torah reading and its haftarah. (I must take note here that this linkage will be homiletical, namely message oriented, and not constitute a historical explanation of the matching of these two texts.) Rabbi Zadok HaCohen from Lublin, one of the most creative Hasidic masters living at the turn of the 20th century, posed a provocative question regarding this point: “If Isaiah’s message is one of consolation, how could it possibly be appropriate to link it with a Torah reading which begins with Moses describing his appeal to God to be allowed to enter the and along with God’s devastating denial?”

His answer to this question is profound. Moses represents the realm of the miraculous where God provided for all of the people’s needs directly – a world not ruled by human responsibility and action. In a “Moses” ruled world, human decisions, achievement and choice were given a minor role. With the changing of the guard, the human partnership with God became the most relevant message in Judaism. Human decisions and responsibility, the building of God’s society on earth became the most tangible sign of community with God. Moses’s departure turned the children of Israel from children into adults. (See Pri L’tzadik Vaetchanan 13)

Is there solace in this message? Rabbi Zadok asserts that the potential relationship with God is so much harder for a person with an adult mentality than it is for someone who is dependent. Responsibility comes with a price. Still, it is all the more meaningful because one’s choices mean something. Nevertheless, God wants us to know that we are not abandoned in this project and this is where Isaiah’s message comes in. God comforts us by letting us know that we are not alone in this project. His presence is with us to give us the requisite strength to conquer the challenges which face us in the land of reality.

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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