Torah scroll 521.
(photo credit: Stockbyte)
We are now in the midst of the cycle of special haftarot following Tisha Be’av –
seven haftarot of “comfort.” There were only three prophetic readings of
“punishment” before Tisha Be’av, but there are seven of comfort. There is
something reassuring, even comforting, about those numbers. It is reminiscent of
the way in which, in the Ten Commandments, we are told of punishment to the
third and fourth generation and “kindness to the thousandth generation” (Exodus
20:6). That is the ratio of judgment God metes out to the amount of
These seven readings are all taken from the latter part of the
Book of Isaiah. According to biblical scholars, these chapters were written by
an unknown prophet they refer to as “Second Isaiah,” who lived in Babylonia when
it was conquered by the Persian ruler Cyrus. Cyrus permitted the Jews to return
to Judea and rebuild the Temple.
The wonderful thing about the words in
these seven selections is that they seem so appropriate for our time.
prophet predicts the return of the Jews from Babylon and compares it to the
Exodus from Egypt (40:1-5). He announces the gathering of the Jews into
Jerusalem (40:9-11). He predicts that Zion will become another Eden (51:3). He
promises the Jews safety from oppression and harm (54:14-17) and that an
everlasting covenant will be made between God and the people (54:3). He assures
Jerusalem that her suffering will come to an end and all the world will see her
triumph (52:1-11). The covenant will be everlasting and God will nevermore be
angry with Jerusalem (54:8-10). He describes how the exiles will return to
Jerusalem from all the corners of the earth (60:4) and how the walls of
Jerusalem will be rebuilt with the help of non-Jews as well (60:10). He gives
assurance that there will be well-being, that there will be no violence and that
the Jewish people will possess the land forever (60:17-21). The Lord will not
rest until He makes Jerusalem renowned on the earth (62:6-7).
readings and the atmosphere they create are much easier to identify with than
those we read prior to Tisha Be’av, which were steeped in predictions of
destruction and mourning. Since we live at a time in which Israel has been
reborn and Jerusalem is being rebuilt day by day, it is difficult to identify
with the deep mourning that Tisha Be’av calls for and that was natural in the
days before the establishment of the State. Today it is more an exercise in
historical memory – a necessary one, for we should never forget what happened in
the past. But the period in which we live now is closer to that of the return
from exile than is the exile itself. Therefore we read these chapters from
Second Isaiah and we identify with them.
Of course not everything that is
written there has come true in our time, but not all of it occurred then either.
The return to the Land of Israel was much more modest. Only a small number
actually left Babylon, and when they returned they found conditions that were
very difficult, with many enemies still hindering them. But, in the long run,
they did indeed build a magnificent city and a magnificent country, which,
tragically, was destroyed in the second exile due to their own folly and poor
During this period of time leading up to the High Holy Days,
let us enjoy the comforting and inspiring words of this ancient prophet, words
that speak to us with immediacy and allow us to hope that this time all exile
will truly come to an end, that the comfort we seek will be realized and that,
as the prophet said, “The Lord shall be a light to you forever, and your days of
mourning shall be ended. And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess
the land for all time” (60:20-21).
The writer, former president of the
International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book
Award. His latest book is
The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).