August 21, 2004
The fact that the liturgical year contains seven haftarot of consolation (shiva denachamta) would seem to indicate that the Jewish people are in need of comfort. The exigencies of simply existing have made their imprint on the Jewish psyche. This week’s haftarah bears out this impression: “What ails you [people of Israel] that you fear man who is desined to die, mortals who wither like grass? …And you live all day in constant dread because of the rage of an oppressor who is aiming to cut you down” (Isaiah 51:12-13) God’s consolation to the Jewish people is straightforward: “For I the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea in to roaring waves, whose name is the Lord of Hosts, have put my word into your mouth and sheltered you in My hand. I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth, have said to Zion: ‘You are My people.’” (Verses 15-16)
Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provance) captures the intent manifest in these verses of conciliation: “It is in My ability to rescue you from exile for I am capable of riling the nations who hold you captive… for I am the Lord of Hosts, both above and below, all is in My hands… and I have put My words in your mouth that you should be My people.” Targum Yonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophetic books, makes explicit what these words were: “And I put My prophetic words in your mouth.” One might say then that God’s message of solace to the Jewish people was that He had made them into a prophetic people.
How was such a message to bring comfort to the people? After all, the prophet’s task is anything but a comfortable one. This question was taken up by Rabbi Judah Aryeh Lieb Alter, the 2nd Gerer Rebbe, in his Shabbat drashot known by the name “Sfat Emet” – “True Talk”: “For when the Torah was given to the Children of Israel, the way of Torah was given to them as an internal instinct, as it is written in the haftarah: ‘What ails you that you fear man… I have put My words in your mouth.’ In prophets [these prophetic words] are a normal occurrence. Nevertheless, in every Jew, there are times when this prophetic sense is revealed. [How is this sense awakened?] The Zohar teaches [that this sense is awakened] through mitzvoth like tzitzit and tefillin – for all of the mitzvoth were given to increase a person\’s sensitivity to his or her divine inner self that we may become closer God. (adapted from Sfat Emet Parshat Shoftim 5647-9 Yeshivat Or Etzion ed. pp.149-50)
God’s words, Torah, give us the tools by which we can draw closer to Him. It is this intimacy which will bring us comfort in good and bad times.
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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