August 20, 2005
This Shabbat we read the first of seven haftarot of consolation (shiva d\’nechamta) which follow Tisha b\’Av. The opening word of the haftarah – \”nachamu\” gives this Shabbat its special name: Shabbat Nachamu- the Shabbat of Consolation. Its opening sentence was meant to be a source of comfort to a people racked by tribulation: \”Comfort, oh comfort My people, says (yomar) your God.\” (Isaiah 40:1)
Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provance) interprets this prophecy contextually, asserting that this prophecy appears to be a response to the prophecy which immediately precedes it. In that prophecy, Isaiah warns King Hezekiah of the ultimate downfall of the kingdom of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. (See chapter 39) Isaiah\’s message of consolation follows, offering solace to those exiled by the Babylonians, proclaiming to them that their exile will ultimately end in redemption.
Kimche apparently understands \”yomar\”, a verb in the future tense, to mean something that will happen in the immediate future. The authors of the following midrash interpreted this prophecy with broader implication: Rabbi Hanina bar Papa said, \’The Israelites said to Isaiah: Isaiah, our master, is it possible that you came only to offer comfort to this particular generation that suffered the destruction of the First Temple?\’ Isaiah responded to them: \’I came to bring comfort to all generations.\’ The verse does not say: \’said (amar) your God\’, rather it says: \’your God will say (yomar).\’ [Similarly,] Rabbi Hanina bar Abba: \”In eight places Isaiah wrote \’your God will say\’, corresponding to the eight prophets who prophesied after the First Temple was destroyed, and these are they: Joel, Amos, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezekiel and Jeremiah.\” (Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 16:10 Mandelbaum ed. p. 278)
Rabbi Yitchak Abrabanel (14th century Spain), unlike Kimche, assumes that the two opinions found in this midrash capture the true meaning of this verse. What other than the tense of the verb \”yomar\” makes the midrash\’s interpretation attractive? It seemed to them inconceivable that Isaiah\’s message of hope would be directed only to those who came to restore the First Temple. These sages assert that his message was intended for all who have suffered a discouraging defeat and need God given confidence to rebuild. This is a message not just for a single generation. It is eternal.