Comfort, Comfort My People
Shabbat Nachamu, Isaiah 40:1–26
Dr. Vered Hillel, Netanya, Israel
Nachamu, nachamu ami, amar Eloheichem …“Comfort, comfort, my people,” says your God. Isaiah 40:1
These five Hebrew words introduce perhaps the most eloquent portion of Scripture, the “Rhapsody of Zion Redeemed” (Isa 40–66), which speaks of restoration, redemption, comfort, and hope for Israel. Depending on one’s view of the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 40 either is written after the Israelites had been in exile for many years following the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple or is looking ahead to the time when these events would occur. Either way, the repetition of the divine command to comfort Hashem’s people shows that this is his continual cry; he never ceases to be Israel’s God, even in exile.
The divine voice also commands the prophet to speak tenderly to Israel, proclaiming that their affliction is finished and God’s justice is satisfied. To Israel these words would have seemed like a soothing ointment on a wound, or soft words cooed over a sick child (40:2). The God of Comfort, however, goes beyond words of comfort to action. He, himself, will lead the exiles through the wilderness back to Zion (40:3). One can sense Hashem’s heart for Israel in the first three verses of this week’s haftarah, which is always read on the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av and known as Shabbat Nachamu after its opening words.
The haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu serves as a counterbalance to the book of Lamentations. The writer of Lamentations cries out “there is no one to comfort her” (Lam 1:2, 9), yet Isaiah proclaims, “Comfort, comfort my people.” Lamentations continues, “the roads to Zion mourn” (1:4) and the exiles “have fled without strength before the pursuer.” Isaiah announces, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3) and “He [Adonai] gives strength to the weary,” but “they who wait for Adonai will renew their strength. They will soar up with wings as eagles. They will run, and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint” (Isa 40:29, 31). While these last two verses are outside of the haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu, they demonstrate the heart of the passage—the hope of Zion and of Israel. Isaiah relates that a new era has dawned; the complete realization of the words in Lamentations that “their punishment is accomplished; he [Adonai] will exile you no longer” (Lam 4:22). Isaiah boldly proclaims “that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed” (Isa 40:2).
This chapter is full of amazing pronouncements of hope as well as teachings on the profound nature of God, including his majesty and might. It emphasizes the reliability of God’s word, reinforcing the prophecies of consolation. The haftarah ends with the charge “Lift up your eyes on high and see! Who created these things?” (Isa 40:26). Isaiah urges the people to focus on Adonai, the Creator, and not on their situation.
Though these words are spoken to Israel, and will come to complete fulfillment in Hashem’s timing, they are also applicable to each one of us. No matter our situation—how much we have sinned, how downcast we are, how far away Hashem may feel, how silent the heavens seem, or how much we are ready to give up—we are to lift up our heads, look to the Creator, and trust in his great might and power. He will redeem every situation. Let creation inspire you to trust in his promise of redemption.
The strategic placement of Isaiah 40:1–26 on the liturgical calendar is also important, demonstrating Hashem’s characteristics of justice and mercy. The three Torah portions, Matot, Masei, and D’varim, which precede Shabbat Nachamu focus on suffering and desolation and climax on Tisha b’Av with the remembrance of the destruction of both Temples. Starting with Shabbat Nachamu, the next seven haftarot focus on comfort and consolation. Even though the seven bear the same message, each one represents a different aspect of consolation and redemption. All seven are drawn from Isaiah 40–66. Along with those from Matot, Masei, and D’varim they are read on the same ten weeks of the year, regardless of any other changes in the Jewish liturgical calendar. Thus, there are ten special haftarot between the 17th day of Tammuz and Rosh Hashanah—three of suffering and seven of consolation and divine promise of redemption.
The order of these ten haftarot is illuminating. The first two readings, for Matot and Masei, are drawn from Jeremiah (1:1–23; 2:4–5:2); the third, D’varim, which is always read on Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, is from Isaiah (1:1–27). The first two are about destruction, sin, and desolation, while the third, the reading from Isaiah, contains words both of rebuke and of comfort. As such it serves as a bridge between the prophecies of destruction and suffering in the haftarot of these three weeks and the seven haftarot of comfort.
This bridge is built on two pillars of Judaism: chesed (mercy) and justice. Justice demands punishment for sin. It does not matter whether it is the sin of an individual or the collective sin of a nation or a social group; Hashem holds humankind accountable for our sin and judges it. Yet, Hashem’s chesed, divine mercy, far outweighs his attribute of judgment/justice. We learn from Exodus 34:6–7, which relates Hashem’s characteristics, and from Exodus 20:5–6, the Ten Commandments, that his graciousness, forgiveness and mercy are four hundred times greater than his judgment, justice, and punishment. “For I, Adonai your God, am a jealous God, bringing the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing chesed to the thousands of generations of those who love me and keep my mitzvot” (Exod 20:5–6).
Usually justice demands that atonement and redemption should be preceded by repentance. However, repentance follows these seven haftaroth. Hosea 14:2–10, Joel 2:11–27, and Micah 7:18–20 are read together as the haftarah for Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This highlights the principle that anytime redemption precedes repentance, it is an undeserved gift of Hashem’s grace and mercy.
So, on Shabbat Nachamu, let’s lift up our heads, look to our Creator, awaken assurance in his might and power, and be inspired to trust his promises. No matter what is happening in our lives, let’s remember that Hashem’s mercy is far greater than his punishment and that his grace and mercy are truly abundant.