Tradition Today: Days of comfort

The wonderful thing about the words in these seven selections is that they seem so appropriate for our time.

Torah scroll 521 (photo credit: Stockbyte)
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 mercy.
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.
The 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).
These 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 judgment.
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).