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Va-ethannan 5764

Parshat Vaetchanan
Isaiah 40:1-26
July 31, 2004

This week’s haftarah begins the first of seven haftarot of consolation (shiva d’nechamta) which link the weeks between Tisha b’Av and the Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe). On Tisha b’Av and during the weeks which precede it, the religious focus is on seeking those factors in the life of the people which contributed to the tragic destruction of the first and second Temples and twice caused the loss of a Jewish sovereignty in their homeland. Largely, the approach taken was moral and didactic. The prophets and later the sages sought to use these horrific tragedies as a means for transforming the moral character of the bereft nation. In addition, by seeking to assert the people’s blame for the tragedies, the sages justified the fate of the nation as God’s response to their disloyalty and immorality. These explanations apparently rang true only to a certain extent because the enormity of the tragedy far outweighed what seemed just to be punishment.

How and where was a Jew to look for consolation when inexplicable tragedy occurred? Did the opening words of the haftarah: “Nachamu nachamu ami – Be comforted, be comforted My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and declare to her that her term of service is over” (verses 1-2) offer sufficient comfort where the disaster could not be totally accounted for? In such circumstances, the Jew turned to the book of Job, which, more than any other book of the Bible, attempted to come to terms with this sort of problem. The following midrash links the consolation offered in the opening words of the haftarah with the solace to be found in Job’s attempt to search for answers to explain his own tribulations: “In regard to Job, it is written: ‘The fire of God fell from heaven.’ (Job 1:16). In regard to Jerusalem, it is written: ‘From heaven fire has been sent into my bones and it has come down.’ (Lam. 1:13)… In regard to Job, it is written: ‘And they sat on the ground for seven days.’ (Job 2:13) In regard to Jerusalem, it is written: ‘The elders of the daughters of Zion sit on the ground in silence.” (Lam. 2:10) In regard to Job, it is written: ‘I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin.’ (Job 16:15) In regard to Jerusalem, it is written: ‘they have cast dust over their heads and put on sackcloth’ (Lam. 2:10) In regard to Job, it is written: ‘Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends for the hand of God has touched me.’ (Job 19:21) In regard to Jerusalem, it is written: ‘For I will show you no favor.’ (Jeremiah 16:13) In regard to Job, it is written: ‘for the hand of God has touched me.’ (Job 19:21) In regard to Jerusalem, it is written: ‘She (Jerusalem) has received double for all of her sins.” (Isaiah 40:2) Said Rabbi Joshua ben Nehemiah, ‘Now if in the case of Job, who was smitten twofold, so Jerusalem will be comforted twofold: ‘Comfort, comfort my people.’ (adapted from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 16:6 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 272-3)

The midrash draws on the story of Job as proof that Jerusalem will ultimately be redeemed because while Job appears to have been afflicted without reason, still, God did not abandon him. Jerusalem, also, while at times, its afflictions seemed unwarranted, will ultimately be comforted and redeemed by God as well.

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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