(Isaiah 40: 1-26)
August 4, 2001
The Mahzor Vitry, a 12th century legal-liturgical work by Simcha ben Samuel of Vitry in France, made the following observation about the haftarot which follow Tisha B’Av: All of the haftarot from Tisha b’Av until Yom Kippur are haftarot of consolation. These haftarot offer comfort much the same way that one should comfort a mourner, little by little. For if you offer someone who experienced a tragedy too much consolation, they will not trust its sincerity. This is comparable to a beggar who, if he is told that he will be anointed king the following day will naturally not believe it. This explains, as well, why the children of Israel were not able to heed Moses’ message of redemption in Egypt. Their “spirits were crushed by cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9) and Moses promised them too much, too fast.
(adapted from the Machzor Vitry pp. 223-4)
The first of these haftarot opens with a famous passage from Isaiah which introduces a series of prophecies offering comfort to the exiled Jews of Babylonia: “Nahamu nahamu ami” – Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to hear that her term of service is over, that her sins are forgiven; for she has received at the hand of God double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)
Despite the dramatic introduction offered by these bittersweet words of comfort, this haftarah is modest in its words of consolation. There is no assurance of rebuilding. There are no promises that the exiles will be redeemed. God’s consolation is much more subtle. God’s comfort is in His presence.
‘A voice rings out: “Clear in the desert a road for the Lord! Level in the wilderness a highway for our God! … The Presence of the Lord shall appear, and all flesh, as one, shall behold – for the Lord Himself has spoken.”’. (verse 3)
God’s presence is sufficient to get the process of healing started. Over the coming weeks, there will be time to talk of rebuilding and redemption. Similarly, when we comfort mourners, the process is gradual. In the house of a mourner, until the mourner is ready to hear words of comfort, our presence, our empathy and a listening ear are sufficient. We must let him or her speak first and only then offer words of comfort. Gradually, the mourner will be ready for reintegration into life. We will have done our part at first by our presence, just as God comforts at first by His presence alone in this week’s haftarah.