Parshat VaEtchanan 5772 – 2012

Published by the Israel Religious Action Center, 2012.

This week is the first of seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShanah. On the previous three Sabbaths leading to Tisha B’Av, the Haftarahs are traditionally called Haftarahs of Admonition during which the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah admonish the Jewish people for straying from their religious and spiritual responsibilities. The Haftarahs of Admonition are read in anticipation of observing Tisha B’Av as a day of mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and other Jewish tragedies.

This week, we begin a new Haftarah cycle that encompasses the seven Sabbaths between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShanah. These seven upcoming Haftarahs are traditionally called Haftarahs of Consolation, during which prophetic stories and teachings assure us that better times are ahead.

This week’s haftarah is the first of the seven Haftarahs of Consolation and this Sabbath is called Shabbat Nahamu. “Nahamu” is the first word of the haftarah in which the prophet Isaiah tells us that God says “nahamu nahamu ami,” meaning “comfort, comfort, My people.”

While the Haftarahs of the next seven weeks contain words of comfort, the Torah portions are filled with speeches by Moses in which he teaches and admonishes the Israelites as they are encamped on the eastern side of the Jordan River preparing to enter the land of promise.

In this week’s Torah portion, called Va’Ethanan, Moses reminds us of the Ten Commandments. Moses also gives us the famous words Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad, which may be translated as “Listen Israel, the Lord our God is One.” And Moses follows the Shema with V’ahavta during which he tells us to love God with all our heart and soul and might, and to teach this love to our children and to remember it at all times throughout our lives.

Moses also tells us, “It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is God; there is none other than God;” and, “Know, therefore, this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.” In between reciting the Ten Commandments, the Shema, V’ahavta and the verses about Oneness, Moses admonishes us to act appropriately and to not turn away from God, lest our people suffer. Moses also expresses words of comfort in the Torah portion, but these are in the form of assurance that after we stray and are punished, if we repent, God will take us back as God’s people.

How is it that we are to love God and yet we need to be fearful of God lest we do something for which God will punish us? And why is it that on Shabbat Nahamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, we read a beautiful Torah portion in which Moses admonishes us some of the time?

Perhaps it is because it is incumbent upon us to find God in creation and act appropriately here in this life in order to be co-creators and co-stewards with God.

The Book of Isaiah provides words of comfort in the Haftarah for this Sabbath and on a number of other occasions, but it also provides admonishing words, such as in the traditional Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning, in which it says, “Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high…. Isn’t this the fast I desire; … to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke; … to share your bread with the hungry and take the wretched poor into your home…. and when you see the naked, cloth him, and not to ignore your kin… ?”

Isaiah is not telling us to go have lunch on Yom Kippur. Rather, he is reminding us that Yom Kippur is not just about us and our personal desire to be blessed and forgiven; it is also about our responsibility for tikkun olam, helping to make the world a better place.

The Torah and Jewish tradition provide us with both comfort and admonishment and this is born out over and over in the cycle of Torah and Haftarah portions throughout the year. We cannot live isolated lives and call ourselves committed Jews. Rather, we must be involved in the cycle of helping to provide comfort where possible and joining in the message of admonishment where needed. For me, this includes standing with fellow Jews who live in the modern State of Israel and who lack adequate religious freedom to practice Judaism in the ways that they understand it.

Supporting and advocating for religious pluralism in Israel is one of the many important ways to fulfill the words of Moses and Isaiah who comfort us at one moment and admonish us at another.