Rabbi David Walk
There are a few Shabbatot in our annual cycle, which have special names. I call them 'special names' because every Shabbat has a name. It is known by the name of that week's Torah reading. However half a dozen or more have another name, usually based upon a key word in the particular Haftorah chosen for that week. Sometimes that specific word also describes the mood for that Shabbat. That's true for the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur called Shabbat Shuva, and that well describes our efforts at repentance during that spiritually tense (especially for rabbis) season. Last week, of course, was known as Shabbat Chazon, and that Haftorah got us into the right spirit for Tisha B'av. This week that featured word is nachamu, which means comfort or consolation. And that's what the Jewish world desires after the annual trauma of Tisha B'av. Recalling all the tragedies of Judaism, past and present is an arduous task which leaves us emotionally and psychologically spent. The fasting only adds to this greater discomfort of the mind and heart. So, that experience leaves us ready and even thirsting for some comfort. But what is the nature of this comfort? And what is it's source?
When you look at the text of this week's Haftorah there are a number of verses which cry out to us the source of this comfort. The first is, 'And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh together shall see that the mouth of the Lord spoke (Isaiah 40:5).' And then there is, 'Upon a lofty mountain ascend, O herald of Zion, raise your voice with strength, O herald of Jerusalem; raise your voice, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God!" So, it would appear that the comfort comes from the presence of God. End of article, and I still have over700 words to go. Yes, these articles are always a thousand words long. However, that answer is deficient. You see on Tisha B'av we found God's presence scary. The Biblical word for God's punishing presence is pakod. Which can also mean 'visit.' Under those conditions don't answer the doorbell. We actually blamed God for many of our historical disasters. Rabbi Soloveitchik actually said that on that day of national disasters we accuse or indict God for many of the catastrophes throughout the long Jewish saga. Our kinot are sort of like a variation on Emile Zola's famous article J'accuse, but our list is much longer. Therefore we need something more to resolve our dilemma, because just being in God's presence isn't necessarily comforting.
I think the real solution is to be found in the parsha. In Va'etchanan there are two issues which inform our conundrum. The first is prayer. The Midrash identifies the word Va'etchanan as one of ten terms used for prayer in Jewish tradition. They are: sha'ava, cry; tza'aka, cry out; na'aka, groan (or, in Yiddish, krechtz, I love that word, Go ahead, use in conversation, You'll learn to love it, too); rina, joyous shout; p'gia, encounter; bitzur, in dire straights; kria, call; nipol, fall or prostrate; pilul, pray; and, finally, tachanunim, supplicate or beg. Phew! We say that Moshe used them all, but it culminated in tachanunim. This is important, because the ability to pray assumes a positive encounter with God. In prayer our deepest desire is to be in the Divine presence. We long to be in God's proximity. That listening and attentive God should give us comfort.
But something even more significant appears in our parsha. We have the mitzva to love God. It's in the first paragraph of shema, ve'ahavta et Hashem Elokecha (Deuteronomy 6:5). Here I must give thanks to Yonah Bar-Maoz (about whom I know nothing, including gender), who, in a fascinating article, not only pointed out that this is the first time that we are enjoined to love our Creator, but that this duty appears nine more times in Sefer Devarim. Bar- Maoz goes on to explain that there are numerous other times when this volume informs us that the poor and the stranger are loved as well by God. This seems to imply that God loves us as well. Therefore I think that we can conclude that loving God is essential to understanding the message of this final book in our Torah. What is that message? Well, before I answer that, I must give you one more important detail about Sefer Devarim, and that is: It's a book of musar or rebuke and chastisement. God, through Moshe, is warning our ancestors to be extremely careful to avoid a whole laundry list of sins and spiritual pitfalls before entering Eretz Yisroel. Clearly, running a country entails an entirely different set of religious dangers than wandering through the wilderness.
So, let's recap: In this week's parsha we are being informed that we can come to God with whatever complaints or issues are on our minds and discuss them or sound off about them or rejoice over them. Then we're told that there's an obligation to love God and it's in some way reciprocated. Finally, all of this information is relayed to us in a context of rebuke and warning. This scenario should sound familiar to us all. God is relating to us as a parent, and we are the annoying offspring (There was a time when I thought the parents were the annoying ones, but that, indeed, was a long time ago.). Without using the words mother or father, the description is unmistakable, and, of course, all of this advice was unasked for.
This is the comfort. All of Jewish history is playing out an eternal parent child relationship. It has the squabbles and breakups, and it also has the mutual concern and the make ups. The essential discovery must be that the bottom line is that our Parent in Heaven cares about us deeply. And if that doesn't comfort us, then nothing ever will.