The cycle of weekly Torah readings and the prophetic readings in the Haftarah is in many ways daunting. We just finished three weeks where the prophets spoke harsh words of admonition (puranuta) . On this Shabbat known both as Vaethanan (from the Torah reading in the Book of Deuteronomy) and Nachamu (from the first verse of the reading from Isaiah) we begin a cycle of seven weeks known as the "seven of consolation" (shiva d'nehemata) which lead of to Rosh ha-Shanah (the New Year) and a further prophetic reading for the Shabbat preceding Yom Kippur. Ten weeks in a row in which the readings from the prophets are unrelated to the Torah reading of the week. Ten weeks of prophetic readings guiding, in a way, the journey of the Jew into the High Holidays.
Taken as a whole we could say that the script begins with the deterioration that comes to a people that gets too comfortable in the land, the undoing of the social order which follows, exile -physical and existential - and climbing up again towards a holy way of being in the world. We never land in the same place where we began, even if Jerusalem continues to be the center. The ones returning are not the same ones who had been exiled. The cycle begins again, but from a different plateau. The sages teach that the first Temple was destroyed because of rampant idolatry and murder within Israelite society. The second Temple, they claim, came down because of baseless hatred -gossip and derogatory language.
Please, don't take any of this too literally. It is always metaphorical. The intent is to show that whenever we get comfortable, thinking ourselves to have achieved a level of success (in the material sense) or holiness (in the spiritual realm), whenever we get to the point of pounding our chest affirming "I did it!" forgetting what it took to get there, we have prepared ourselves for the fall. Yet even in defeat there is something we can learn. This is what the readings of consolation and comfort come to tell us. If we don't give way to despondency, if we are capable of lifting up our heads again to see the world in all its beauty, the order in creation behind it, and the Source of all Being as the ground of our being, then we can begin to dream again, and from the dream to the drawing board try yet again to succeed.
When Rabbi Shanks and I looked for a simple message we wished would emanate from the Torah scrolls in our holy ark as the doors were opened, besides the radiant colors three words came to mind to be inscribed in the Torah at the center: Nachamu, nachamu Ami, Comfort, oh comfort My people, the words that open this week's Haftarah. Though often we feel the need to speak words of warning about the state of affairs in our community, our cities, our nation, Israel or the world, we wanted to be sure that whenever a troubled soul walked through our doors into our sacred space s/he would feel embraced not only by the warmth of community but by a Presence that is, above all, comforting. That in this presence hearts would be lifted, heads raised high and no matter how lowly one felt, from this space one could begin to raise again.
It is in this cycle that we find ourselves now. If we are going to enter into the High Holy Day season in a meaningful way we can't think ourselves perfect, neither can we think ourselves unredeemable. We are in that in-between place from which we can emerge enriched if we do the work.
Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her
That her term of service is over,
That her iniquity is expiated;
for she has received at the hand of the Eternal
Double for all her sins...
Rabbi Roberto D. Graetz