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A good place to begin

Va’etchanan | Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

This Shabbat, which comes immediately after the fast day of Tisha B’Av, is known as Shabbat Nahamu, after the opening words of the haftara: “Nahamu, nahamu ami — Give comfort to My people.” (Isaiah 40:1)

Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the first and second Jerusalem Temples (586 BCE and 70 CE) is no longer widely observed. Perhaps this is because it falls in the summer, when distractions of vacation and leisure are highest, or perhaps because of the lachrymose nature of the day or the vast historical distance from the events it commemorates.

Or perhaps it is the theological response to destruction and calamity found in the seven haftarot we read from now until just before Rosh Hashana. For Jews living in ancient Babylonia after the destruction of Jerusalem, the words of Isaiah were both comforting and explanatory: “Her iniquity is expiated…. You were only sold off for your sins…. You have drunk from the Lord’s hand the cup of His wrath.” From this perspective, the destruction of the Temples was deemed punishment for violation of the covenantal terms of the Torah.

Notwithstanding our distancing from the dated theology of destruction, the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana remain an important opportunity for preparation. Despite the difficulties we might encounter with a literal application of the words of Isaiah, his motifs of repentance and reconciliation are as important to moderns as they were to our ancestors as we anticipate the beginning of the New Year.

Tisha B’Av represents those moments when terrible experiences seem to have severed us from God and from other people, when the breach seems so wide that we cannot imagine a time when it will be healed. Collectively, we feel alone, despondent, rejected.

It is at just such moments that we most need to turn to our religious sources for hope; even if we cannot accept the words in their literal sense, the symbolic message is sustaining: “ Nahamu, nahamu ami — Give comfort to My people!” To offer comfort is to suggest consolation, to offer hope is to suggest reconciliation, to offer a vision of a future is to suggest return.

The seven haftara readings of comfort that begin this week chart a path toward reconciliation that culminates appropriately with the fall season of teshuva, or turning/growing in the direction of God. These seven weeks are really the beginning of the New Year, for they are the weeks in which, with increasing assurance, we are reminded by Isaiah: “Fear not, for I am with you. Be not frightened, for I am your God; I strengthen you and I help you.”

Too often we miss the opportunity to prepare for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. What we accomplish in preparation for the High Holy Days yields increased meaning in their observance. This year, when the holidays fall so early, we especially need to take time to prepare. Shabbat Nahamu, with its anticipation of the path to reconciliation and restoration, is a good place to begin.

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