Parashah Ponderings

A Time for Love and Comfort

Parashat Vaetchanan 5783 / פָּרָשַׁת וָאֶתְחַנַּן
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Shabbat Nachamu

This Shabbat, Shabbat Nachamu (“Sabbath of comfort/ing”), takes its name from this week’s haftarah, Isaiah 40:1-26, that speaks of God “comforting” the Jewish people. Comfort is what the people needed after the Temple had been destroyed, the people starved to death during the siege of Jerusalem, and tens of thousands of Jews taken captive and exiled to Babylon. The people had suffered unspeakable horrors as God punished them for their faithlessness. The message of comfort, thus, comes on the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies that have befallen our people. 

נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם׃ 

“Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God,” begins Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 40:1). 

The prophet imagines the God of judgment, whose wrath brought misery upon the people, now showing the Divine aspect of mercy and compassion. In Isaiah’s theology, the God that punishes their Beloved now offers the Beloved consolation. Soon, God and Israel will reconcile; several decades later numerous exiles would return to their land with renewed faith and faithfulness to rebuild a dwelling place in Jerusalem for their Beloved.

Shabbat Nachamu is the first of seven Shabbatot on which we read haftarot of consolation from the Book of Isaiah. These seven Shabbatot lead into Rosh Hashana and are followed by one chosen especially for the Shabbat before Yom Kippur. In this way, Shabbat Nachamu ushers us into a period of time of moving beyond suffering for our sins to being comforted by the knowledge that God’s love and compassion is always with us. While we often associate Elul as the month devoted to reconciling with God and those whom we’ve hurt, the Torah reading cycle would have us begin reflecting now on the rewards that come with self-examination, repentance, reconciliation, and healing. 

Coincidentally or not, this Friday is also Tu B’Av, a day on which our thoughts go to love among human beings and that always falls within days of Shabbat Nachamu. In traditional communities, Tu B’Av is a day on which many matches are made and many weddings are held. How fitting that these two moments fall so close to one another! Love is a central theme of both.

As if on cue, then,  the Torah portion for Shabbat Nachamu is Va-etchanhan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11), which offers us instruction on how to love others, whether the “others” be people or God:

וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכׇל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ 

“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.” (Deut. 6:6-6).

In the context of the Torah, Moses is reminding Israel that if Israel will be faithful to God’s teachings, God will be with Israel as a loving partner. If they go astray, Israel will suffer under God’s mighty hand. But when read within the context of Shabbat Nachamu AND Tu B’Av, one hears an entirely different, if unintended message: When you love, love with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might. Love with commitment. Continuously make the choice to love people AND God.

This instruction to love with the fullness of one’s being brings me comfort and hope. What would our world look like if each of us kept love at the front of our minds at all times – like frontlets between our eyes, like a sign on our hand, like a sign on our entrance ways, when we rise up in the morning, when we walk out of the gates of our house, when we lie down to sleep at night, when we teach our children (Deut. 7:7-9)? It would be beautiful!

We too often forget to love one another because we feel anger, disappointment, fear, disinterest. Too often, our egos blind us to that which is worth loving in the other. We forget that the one we are angry at any given moment may very well be someone we love or could grow to love if we could otherwise see the fullness of their humanity. Not everyone is worthy or deserving of our love; for example, it is unrealistic, even absurd, to talk about love of someone who has abused us by stripping us of our humanity and attempted to gain power over us. With the exception of those cases, which are shockingly and lamentably commonplace, we might actually find comfort in letting ourselves (re-)discover in others a reason to love them. Love can lead to forgiveness and ultimately healing and reconciliation. On a global level, love might even lead humankind to civility and peace. May it be so.

I believe the qualities of people that draw us to love them are reflections of the Divine image in which our tradition says we are all created. Thus, when we love others with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our might, we love God, too. When we affirm our covenantal relationships to lovingly care for and respect our life-partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, neighbors, strangers on the street, (fill in the blank), we affirm our covenantal relationship with the Beloved Holy One, as well. It’s not always easy to find the image of the Divine in the ones who are close to us, let alone complete strangers or people who get under our skin, but when we try and succeed and then allow ourselves to love them, the world becomes a safer, more comforting place. The challenge over the next several weeks for all of us who suffer under the burdens of just living in this world is to love and feel loved, to comfort and to feel comforted.