August 13, 2011
13 Av 5771
Most of the haftarot (the liturgical prophetic readings) for Shabbat have some thematic association with the weekly parasha. The exceptions to this generalization, though, turn out to be among the earliest recorded haftarot. Among these exceptions, we find the haftarot for the next seven weeks which are known as the shiva denachamta – the seven haftarot of consolation and are meant to bring comfort after Tisha b’Av. We know that these haftarot were established early on since midrashic collections for these readings already existed in the time of the Talmud. (See in particular Pesikta d’Rav Kahana.)
The fact that the early sages chose these particular haftarot without establishing a thematic link between them and the weekly Torah reading did not keep later sages from creatively forging just such a relationship. Parshat Vaetchanan is especially noteworthy for what would become two important statements of faith in the Jewish tradition – the Shema in which Jews proclaim their faith in God and the opening line of the Ten Commandments – “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt”. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, the Sfat Emet (19th-20th century Poland), noted that every Jew has a special sense of joy and comfort in accepting upon him or herself this relationship with God that is implied in these passages.
The three weeks of mourning which culminated in Tisha b’Av were a reminder of the difficult situations that Jews have often found themselves in throughout history. This week’s haftarah, in contrast, is famed for its opening words- “Nahamu nahamu ami – Comfort, comfort O My people” (40:1) – which were intended to offer consolation to the Jews from this tragic consciousness. The Sfat Emet asserts that the message of faith found in Parshat Vaetchanan is the greatest source of consolation that a Jew could hope for or, as he puts it: “All of the mitzvoth and traits which cause a person to become close to God – all of these require a person to have love and yearning for God in themselves constantly. This is why this parasha coincides with this haftarah, for God’s “comfort” for all of life’s exigencies is found in God’s being. The very essence of knowing the Shema and the Ten Commandments are of comfort, for God is the source of comfort. All of life, both its good moments and its bad moments, is an exercise in developing intimacy with God and through it is to be found our hope and comfort as it was for Moses, King David and the prophet Jeremiah. None of these figures was short of woes, but God proved to be their greatest strength.” (adapted from Sefat Emet Vaetchanan 5656, p 69 Or Etzion ed.)
So He will be for us as well.
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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