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V’etchanan 5783        July 29, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom,

Michelle often listens to the news with me and together we hear the litany of events that are taking place in our world. If you are reading or listening to the news you know that there is much of great concern that is happening all over this planet. There is the well-known fact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is the ongoing soap opera of the life and campaign of Donald Trump. There is the worldwide disaster this summer of climate change as heat waves create havoc in Europe, the southern part of the United States, the forests of Canada and right here in Connecticut. There is the ongoing issue of gun violence in this country and the rise in racism and antisemitism. It is suddenly bad to be “Woke” which means, I guess, that we should all be “Asleep.” Democracy is under attack in many places and many places are falling under the rule of dictators and strongmen. Will China attack Taiwan? Will the issue of women’s healthcare rights be the determining factor in the next series of elections in this country? There are certainly a lot of issues that are to be considered as we read and watch the news.

I am positive that Michelle is not alone in being worried about our world. There is so much that is going on around us and almost all of it translates into negative assumptions of our world. There are some terrible things happening and some terrible things that could happen if people are not careful, and we could be on the precipice of great disasters if positive action does not happen soon. This is not just about what you and I can do, but many of these issues require whole countries to be involved and perhaps we do need the help and support of people around the globe. It is assumed that the more people who need to be involved the more complicated and less likely that anything will be done at all. Michelle wonders how I can stay positive about the world when everything seems to be going in the wrong direction.

I was on a Zoom meeting this week with our state senators, Murphy, and Blumenthal, about climate change. Some of my colleagues in other states have senators who refuse to meet on climate issues. We are blessed to live in a state where our representatives understand why climate change is important and are doing what they can to support renewable energy and to reduce carbon emissions. It was a good call with leaders who understand the real issues that face our planet today. But we are a small state in a big country. Will enough leaders be convinced that work needs to be done to protect our planet from the changing climate? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I remain positive that what is right will win out over all that is wrong.

For the last three weeks, we have been reading three haftarot of rebuke. They are from the prophets who predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple. The past three weeks led us to the dark, black fast of Tisha B’Av, and we read on that day the book of Aicha/Lamentations, the bitter poetry created in the wake of that disaster. It records the famine, the death, the destruction, and the ruins left behind by our attackers. On Tisha B’Av we sit in the smoldering wreckage of our Temple and cry for all that we have lost.

Today is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort. The Sages of the Talmud wondered which Prophet from the book of Neviim, should be selected to bring words of comfort after all those weeks of rebuke? The ancient prophets were really good at reminding the people of all the evil that they had let slip into society. They are not as good as bringing comfort to demoralized people. We have seen, from our reading this morning, that the prophet they eventually chose was Isaiah. And the reason they chose Isaiah is important to know.

Vered Hollendar-Goldfarb, who teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, who I introduced last week as we faced down the destruction of the Temple, is back this week with words of consolation. She brings a Midrash that helps explain the discussions among the sages. She writes: “The midrash Pesikta d’Rav Kahana poses the same question in story form, presenting various prophets as trying to console Jerusalem, only to be rebuffed because Jerusalem does not know which of their prophecies to believe: the ones about the looming destruction or the ones giving hope.

Isaiah is different, … in that he does not demand anything from the people. Implicit in other prophecies of future hope is the idea that the people have done something to deserve the change, that the problems of the past have been corrected. Isaiah says, “her hard labor is fulfilled, her iniquity is settled, for she has taken from the LORD’s hand double for all her offenses.” (v. 2.) The nation has suffered all that it was meant to endure as part of their punishment. They need not fear that more is about to come. They have justly earned their redemption and therefore it must come.”

To Isaiah, the people had served their time for their offences and now were ready to begin a new life free from the sins that almost destroyed them. He hopes for a better future because the people have learned their lesson and will not let sin divert them from their focus on being good and righteous people. They have paid a steep price for their sins and now they have the chance to start over.

Isaiah goes on to add that God will clear a path back to their land, paving the way before them. This, notes Hollander-Goldfarb, is an image that should remind the people of the Exodus from Egypt; that God cleared the way for the People of Israel to leave their slavery behind. God led them to Sinai and to the Promised Land. Just as God led the people in the past, so too will God open a path for them as they arise from their punishment, the ashes of Jerusalem, and will bring them back to their place in the land and to their place in history.

Ms. Hollander-Goldfarb goes on to add: The prophet understands that this approach is necessary. A broken nation, having experienced things that they believed could not happen, has no endurance left for more struggles. The disillusioned nation does not have the inner strength to be proactive in its own redemption. They are likely to just walk away. Isaiah turns to the nation with a promise from God: God will do all that is needed to redeem God’s people.” 

This is the promise that we see in our Torah reading for today. Today we read the V’ahavta, the statement of love between God and the people of Israel. We are commanded to love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might. Be we also learn that God loves us as well, that God’s love will never leave us. Yes, the people were punished for their sins, but now that the time of punishment is over, it is God’s love that will bring the people home. This is the message of consolation found in Haftara Nachamu, the Haftarah of Comfort. This is the message that Isaiah has for the people, to help them go on after their great disaster.

Today, we arrive at the beginning of the seven weeks of consolation, This is the first of seven Haftarot that will comfort us even as they lead us to the Yamim Noraim, the days of Awe, when we know that repentance is possible and yes, we do get a chance, another year, to start over, leaving our sins from the last year behind. Just as Isaiah writes, we have paid the price of our sins and now we will get a chance to start over again in life.

Tisha B’Av represents the lowest point in Jewish history. The Yamim Noraim reminds us that we are not destined to be in that pit forever. God loves us. God cares about us. God wants us to understand the price of sins, but God also wants us to know that we do not have to pay that price forever. There is teshuva, repentance. There is a chance to start over. We do get a chance to learn the lessons of life and to always try and live our lives better. Tisha B’Av marks the beginning of our exile from our land and the loss of our right to self-determination. But now the path has been cleared for us to return to our nation and to return to God. It only took us three weeks of rebuke to fall into the pit of destruction, but with patience, we can travel the seven-week road to find our path back to God.

Isaiah was chosen for this week because he opens the door, just a crack, to let us see what our freedom to return to God means. For the next seven weeks we can learn how we can be better human beings, how we can make our world better and how we can come back, even after a cataclysmic disaster. We are never lost. We have a God who loves us who will clear a path for our return.

How do I stay so positive in the face of all the bad news that surrounds us? How can I be so optimistic when staring into the dark abyss of this world? First of all, I am a student of history. I know that Isaiah is not wrong. That even though our sins will catch up with us, they will also pass by, and we will be left standing in ashes. I know there is a long way to go to get our world back on track. But I also know that people are good inside. That given a chance to do better and to be better, they will take that chance and change the world. I offer no bed of roses. It will be a long hard journey to repair our world. But if we are prepared to make the journey; and I believe that we are more than ready to leave evil behind and to set our faces forward on the journey to what is good, right, and proper; we will find our way to peace. We will find our way to God. God loves us and will always welcome our return.

Soon enough, we will be able to sing in the words of Psalms, in the words of Hallel: Zeh Hayom Asa H’ Nagila v’Nismecha Bo” “This is the Day that God has made, let us sing and rejoice in it.”

Through the night may be dark, we will always believe that God will bring us back to the light. As we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784