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Toward Shabbat: Vaethanan

A week after Tisha Be’Av—the day in which we mark the destruction of the first and second temples, and various other painful events over the course of Jewish history—Shabbat Nahamu seems to come at exactly the right time. A week after reading Lamentations by flashlight, sitting, grieving, and feeling the depths of despair, the Shabbat of Comfort comes just when we might need it most.

Inspiring the name for Shabbat Nahamu, this week’s Haftarah elevates Isaiah’s words: נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי / Comfort, comfort your people. Here, Isaiah speaks not of our ability to reach out and comfort one another, or even reach inward and comfort ourselves; he speaks rather of a Divine nehamah (comfort) that can heal the deepest pains and mend the most profound losses. And while this thinking might be comforting, the theology behind it can be challenging, leaving us without agency, as we await Divine comfort from on high. Is there not a role that we too can play in bringing nehamah into our lives and the world?

Rashi would tell us that it depends on how you understand the word. The Hebrew root of nahamu actually has multiple meanings as it appears in different contexts throughout the Torah. In Genesis, for instance, it refers to a sense of regret, rather than comfort:

וַיִּנָּחֶם ה’ כִּי־עָשָׂה אֶת־הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל־לִבּוֹ׃

And God regretted that God had made Adam on earth, and God’s heart was saddened. (Genesis 6:6)

Following the Exodus from Egypt, the same root comes to mean one who has a change of heart:

וַיְהִי בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת־הָעָם וְלֹא־נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא כִּי  אָמַר אֱלֹהִים פֶּן־יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה׃

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Phillistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” (Exodus 13:17)

Rashi teaches that these are not alternate meanings to the root, but, rather, each time the root of nehamah appears, it’s meant to imply a “mahshavah aheret” (a different thought). According to Rashi, comfort, regret and a change of heart all represent a shift in how we think about our experiences. We might then re-read Isaiah as imploring God to open our eyes, crack open our hearts, and transform how we see our circumstances, rather than strictly providing comfort.

In this reading we do have a role to play, as it seems to foreshadow the very spiritual reorientation that we seek in the work of heshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) and teshuvah (repentance) that lie ahead of us as we move toward the Yamim Nora’im (“Days of Awe,” the High Holy Days). As Isaiah calls for nehamah, we are invited to begin preparing for that spiritual work and on this Shabbat Nahamu, may we find comfort in the transformative possibilities that await us.