Comfort, oh, comfort my people - opinion

Words of consolation only go so far. In Isaiah’s time and today, it will take corrective action to offer true comfort to the people and enable them to start healing.

 TISHA BE’AV observed at the Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
TISHA BE’AV observed at the Western Wall.

This Shabbat, Jews around the world will read the Haftarah – the portion from the books of Prophets chanted in synagogues after the weekly Torah reading – that opens with the Hebrew words “Nachamu, nachamu ami,” from which the weekend gets its moniker, Shabbat Nachamu.

The Haftarah is the first in a series of seven Haftarot of Consolation following the three-week period of national mourning that culminates in Tisha Be’av, the somber fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and took place on Thursday.

The opening words of the Haftarah, taken from Isaiah 40:1, are commonly read as, “Be comforted, be comforted, My people,” suggesting that God – in whose name the words are said – is consoling His people, Israel, after the cataclysm.

But – as many scholars, both ancient and modern, have noted – the grammar doesn’t quite work, and neither does the chronology.

Nachamu is a plural imperative – a command aimed at more than one addressee. A more accurate reading of the text, then, would be “Comfort, oh, comfort my people,” though the identities of the message’s recipients are shrouded in mystery.

 Protests against the judicial reform at Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, May 27, 2023. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
Protests against the judicial reform at Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, May 27, 2023. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

In addition, according to tradition (and the majority of the text), Isaiah lived and prophesied in the seventh and eighth centuries BCE, during the reigns of four Judean kings. But the first Temple, which appears to be the subject of many of the prophecies, was destroyed in 587 BCE, long after Isaiah’s death. How could Isaiah have been offering words of consolation for an event that hadn’t yet taken place?

Commentators offer various explanations. The rabbis wrote that Isaiah, as a prophet, was able to foresee the coming calamity and thus console the people in advance of the tragedy that was to befall them. Modern scholars believe Isaiah is actually a collection of writings by three different authors, one of whom did indeed experience the destruction of the Temple and wrote while in exile in Babylonia.

But the question of who, exactly, is meant to offer comfort to God’s people has vexed scholars for generations.

Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser – known by the acronym Malbim – who lived and wrote in the 19th century and served as the chief rabbi of Bucharest, interpreted the verse as being directed at God’s prophets: “You, prophets, comfort My people.” Rabbi David Altschuler, an 18th century commentator who lived in Prague, concurred: “God tells the prophets, ‘comfort My people.’”

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, one of the preeminent Jewish scholars of medieval Spain, agreed that the text may have been directed at a prophet, but offered another option: In the verse, he writes, “God addresses His prophet or the chiefs of the people.”

Ibn Ezra’s interpretation is a curious one. Surely the people’s leaders bear responsibility for their predicament – Isaiah says so explicitly: “Your rulers are rogues and cronies of thieves, every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts; they do not judge the case of the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.” (Isaiah 1:23)

The prophet himself ascribes the destruction of Jerusalem in large part to corruption and a twisted judicial system – the markings of failed leadership. How, then, are the people’s leaders to offer them comfort?

A time of comfort needed in Israel today

The question seems particularly relevant today, after one of the most difficult weeks in Israel’s recent history.

In the days since the Knesset’s passage of the first part of the government’s judicial reform, various national leaders have been issuing conciliatory messages in an apparent effort to soothe a sharply divided nation.

“We have one country, one home, one nation,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a televised address that aired hours after the vote, on a split screen alongside live footage of clashes between protesters and police in Tel Aviv. “On the eve of Tisha Be’av, we will safeguard them together. I say to the leaders of the opposition: we can keep arguing, we can keep sparring, but we can also do something else. We can reach an agreement about what happens next. Let’s reach an agreement. This is my call to you and I extend my hand in peace and mutual respect.”

“This is a complicated year, it is impossible to cover up that truth, and I enter this Tisha Be’av much more concerned,” said National Unity Leader Benny Gantz in a video uploaded on the eve of the fast day. “We must achieve unity among ourselves, and the key to achieving it isn’t in what we can give our base, but rather in what we’re willing to give up in order to draw closer to others… The State of Israel needs to heal itself from within.”

These are important and welcome words, but one cannot help but ask where they were in the days, weeks, and months leading up to Monday’s vote – and what value they ultimately have.

Like the Jewish leaders of yore, our leaders bear primary responsibility for the sorry state of affairs in Israel today. The poisonous rhetoric, the delegitimization of the other, the vitriolic incitement, the self-interested politics, and – perhaps more than anything else – the zero-sum thinking are what have brought this country to the brink.

Words just won’t do.

Happily, we can look to Isaiah to offer guidance on what it will take to right current wrongs: “Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17-18)

In other words, the way to set things straight is to do the exact opposite of what got you in this situation to begin with.

Or, as Maimonides – Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, who codified Jewish law while living in 12th century Egypt – writes in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah: “[Who has reached] complete repentance? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit [the sin again], and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his repentance alone.”

The debate over the judicial reform isn’t going anywhere, nor are the deep fissures that have become apparent in Israeli society in recent months. As the Knesset adjourns for a long summer recess that will stretch until after the Jewish holidays in the autumn, pausing the legislative process, now is the time for the leaders who got us here to set their differences aside and demonstrate to the nation that they have our best interests in mind. If they don’t, we are liable to find ourselves in a nightmarish national Groundhog Day replete with massive street protests, a paralyzed legislature, a crippled economy, and a divided society that may take many years to heal.

The coalition and the opposition may not be as far apart as they appear; National Unity leader Gantz and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid – Netanyahu’s greatest political foes – have themselves expressed support for adjusting the balance of powers in Israel in the past. It should be possible for the parties to reach agreement on all parts of the proposed judicial reform, provided they are genuinely interested in doing so.

President Isaac Herzog has offered his good offices – and his official residence – to the cause of achieving a negotiated consensus. We should expect – nay, demand – that our leaders and their representatives use the Knesset recess to take him up on his offer, and that they refuse to leave until, as they say, white smoke emerges into the skies over Jerusalem’s Talbiya neighborhood.

Words of consolation only go so far. In Isaiah’s time and today, it will take corrective action to offer true comfort to the people and enable them to start healing. Let’s hope our leaders are up to the task.