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Thoughts on Sheva D’nechemta – Seven Haftarot of Comfort

During the past two weeks we have entered into a period of preparation for the High Holiday season which will soon be upon us.  I wrote a few weeks back about the three weeks between the fast of Shiva Asar b’Tammuz and the major fast day of Tisha B’Av, the period known as Bein Hametzarim, between the straits. The culmination of that period is the fast of TishaB’Av. Our sages point out that Tisha B’Av combines within it both a sense of mourning for the past, for the destruction of the ancient Temples and other calamities, the end of Jewish self-rule in Eretz Yisrael, as well as the recognition that we are called upon to feel on any fast day, that while we have sinned, we stillhave the possibility of repentance, teshuvah, and return to the Lord.  Thus, we begin looking to the future with hope on the afternoon of the fast day, as we look to the new year ahead.  As we read in Eichah, “Ulai yesh Tikvah, perhaps there is hope.” We concluded that megillah with the words we chant on returning the Torah to the ark each week, “Hashiveinu Adonay elecha v’nashuva, turn us, O Lord, to You and we shall return, chadesh yameinu k’kedem, renew our days as of old.”

 

Following Tisha B’Av, again we depart from the usual practice of linking our haftarot, the prophetic readings, to the Torah portion of the week and instead, we read seven haftarot of comfort and consolation leading up to Rosh Hashanah, sheva d’nechemta.  These in turn are followed by two haftarot which speak of Teshuvah, of repentance, one read on the Fast of Gedaliah, the day after Rosh Hashanah, and the other on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Shabbat Shuvah. This tradition of twelve special haftarot does not stem from the Talmud, but apparently arose in the post-Talmudic period of the Geonim and is found in the Midrash of Pesiktad’Rav Kahana, a collection of homilies which is organized around thehaftarot for the various holidays through the year, as well as the special haftarot read before Purim and Pesach. Tothese are added these twelve haftarot, three of warning before Tisha B’Av, seven of comfort afterwards, and two of repentance, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Scholars differ on the dating of this midrashic collection, though it may have appearedas early as the 5th century and reflect within it traditions going back to earlier times.

 

In the Talmud, in tractate Megillah (31b), there is some discussion regarding the appropriate haftarot to read before and on Tisha B’Av.  The Tosafot (12th-14th century France and Germany) students of the school of Rashi, comment on that same page that the tradition of their communities is not to follow the rulings cited here by the Talmud but rather “Anu nohagim al pi ha-Pesikta.” We follow the custom according to the Pesikta to say three haftarot of puranuta (impending doom), prior to Tisha B’Av, viz. Divrei Yirmiyahu, Shim’u D’var Adonay, and Chazon Yishayahu.  After Tisha B’Av, we have seven passagesof nechemta (comfort) and two of t’yuvta (repentance).  They proceed to list all nine of these readings which match up with our current practice.  They mention a mnemonic, taking the first letter of the opening word of each haftarah to help remember the order of these 12 readings and they also discuss some fine points regarding scheduling of these special shabbatot.

 

Rabbi David Abudarham, a 14th century Spanish rabbi, whose commentary on blessings and prayers is known simply by his name as Sefer Abudarham, has an interesting midrash to share about the sequence of these seven haftarot of comfort that we read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah.  All seven of these readings come from the latter portion of the Book of Isaiah, the section most modern scholars associate with some unknown prophet who lived at the time of the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile, in the last third of the sixth century BCE.  The first part of the book contains prophecies actually spokenby Isaiah who is mentioned in the Book of Kings and lived atthe time of King Hezekiah, about 150 years earlier than the time of these haftarot. Thus, from chapter 40 on, we speak of a Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah, a later prophet whose words are incorporated into this large biblical work.

 

The haftarah read on the Shabbat immediately after Tisha B’Av is taken from chapter 40:1-26), and begins, “Nachamu, nachamu ami.” “Comfort, comfort, My people,” says your God.”  This shabbat is known as Shabbat Nachamu and always falls on the Shabbat of Parashat Va-Etchanan, the second section of Deuteronomy.  Last week, for Parashat Ekev, we read the second haftarah of the series, (Isaiah 49:14 - 51:3) which begins with the rather forlorn cry of Zion, “Vatomer Tziyon azavani Adonay, vadonay shechechani.” “Zion says, the Lord has abandoned me and the Lord has forgotten me.”​  For the third reading, this week for Parashat Re’eh, Abudarham cites two traditions.  One begins “Uri, uri” (Isaiah 51:9 – 52:10), “Awake, awake” and the other, which is the one we generally follow, (Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5) starts “Aniyah soarah lo nuchamah,” “Afflicted one, storm-tossed and disconsolate.” The fourth reading for Parashat Shoftim is Isaiah 51:12 - 52:12, “Anochi, Anochi, Hu menachemchem,” “I ,I am He who comforts you.” The fifth haftarah for Ki Tetzei, is one of the shortest haftarot, hence very popular with Bar and Bat Mitzvah students.  It is from Isaiah 54:1 -10, and begins “Roni akarah lo yaladah.” “Sing, barren one, you who have not given birth.” Number six for Ki Tavo, is from Isaiah 60:1 -22, “Kumi, ori, ki va orech.” “Arise and shine for your light has come.”  I cannot hear these words without returning to my camper days at Camp Ramah in Connecticut, when the camp music counselor popped up out of nowhere and suddenly began pounding out a spirited melody to these words on the old upright piano in the front of the dining hall. By the seventh week, the week before Rosh Hashanah, we have come a long way from the depths of despair and the haftarah for that week of Parashat Nitzavim begins “Sos asis badonay.” “I will great rejoice in the Lord.” (Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9).

 

When Rosh Chodesh Elul falls on the Shabbat of Re’eh during these weeks, there are varying traditions followed.  Our custom is to read the regular Rosh Chodesh reading which is also from this section of Isaiah (chapter 66) and we re-assemble chapter 54, on Parashat Ki Tetzei and read both Roni Akarah (verses 1 -10) normally read on Ki Tetzei, followed by Aniyah soarah, the deferred reading from Re’eh, which begins with verse 11. Thissituation occurred last year (2022) and before that in 2019.  The two sections of chapter 54 are always read together later in the fall as the regular haftarah for Parashat Noach.

 

Abudarham cites a midrash utilizing these seven readings toimagine a dialogue between Zion, representing the Jewish people, and God.  After the terrible tragedy marked by Tisha B’Av, God calls to the prophets and tells them, “Nachamu, nachamu ami.” “Comfort, comfort my people.” After all their many warnings of impending doom

and the sermons condemning the sins of the people, now is a time to offer words of comfort and consolation.  However, the midrash imagines that Zion is not ready to accept consolation, certainly not from the same folks who had nothing but words of reproof and contempt to offer in the past.  Thus, she replies in the words of the second haftarah, “Vatomer Tziyon azavani Adonay,” Zion says, God has abandoned me, the Lord has forgotten me. I am not appeased by the words of these prophets;they provide no comfort. Abudarham notes the two variant traditions for the third haftarah and says that if you take the first tradition and read “Uri uri,” We might see God urging Israel to “Awake, awake, clothe yourself with splendor.”  In the second tradition which is the one we follow, he sees the prophets again returning to God and complaining that their words have no effect, “Aniyah soarah lo nuchama,” This afflicted, storm-tossed one is not comforted.  To this God replies with the fourth haftarah, “Anochi, Anochi Hu menachemchem” I guess I’ll have to do it Myself. “I, I am the one who will comfort you.” So, God now tells Israel, “Roni akarah lo yaladah.” In this fifth passage, He urges them to “Sing, O barren one who has not given birth, shout aloud with joy.”  He promises renewal of the city of Jerusalem, masses of people returning, more than can be accommodated in the existing housing.  And further in the sixth haftarah, He calls to them, “Kumi ori ki va orech,” “Arise and shine, for your light has come, the glory of God will shine upon you.”  God is bringing redemption, restoring them to their land.  At this upbeat message, Zion finally responds with joy in the seventh reading, “Sos asis badonay” Now I have cause to rejoice for God has clothed me in garments of salvation.

 

So we see, even without this midrash, a progression of prophecies leading the people who are so discouraged after the fall of Jerusalem and its Temple, out of the depths of sorrow to a reconciliation with their God, and an expression of great joy and celebration in the restoration of their homeland. The first week’s haftarah, Nachamu, following the last haftarah of impending disaster the week before, provides a major contrast.  God announces the end of the exile, the expiation of past sins, and the return to the homeland.  Heavenly voices are heard announcing the good news, proclaiming joy to Jerusalem.  God’s power and transcendence are affirmed: “Lift high your eyes and see: Who created these?  He who sends out their host by count, who calls them each by name: because of His great might and vast power, not one fails to appear.”

 

Yet, in the second week, as the midrash notes, Zion personified cries out in despair: she feels that she has been forgotten and abandoned by God. God has reassured the people that He cannot forget them any more than a mother can forget her children.  He promises their return.  Yet He is disappointed in their response.  There was temporary punishment for past sins, He tells them,but there is no divorce document.  Our union is eternal. The prophet speaks of his unceasing efforts to reach out to the people.  He concludes this passage by stating clearly, “Truly the Lord has comforted Zion…gladness and joy shall abide there, thanksgiving and the sound of music.”

 

More promises of the renewal of Zion, the influx of masses of people, and the great wealth that will follow are found in the third haftarah of comfort.  The “unhappy, storm-tossed one, uncomforted” will have reason soon to rejoice and be comforted.  Beyond the material wealth, there is also the promise of spiritual riches, “All your children shall be disciples of the Lord, and great shall be the happiness of your children.”  Zion shall be revived and “you shall summon a nation you did not know…the Holy One of Israel has glorified you.”  Thus, the prophet continues to speak words of hope and renewal, hoping to convince the people that it is a new day.

 

In the fourth week, we find a striking contrast drawn between the words of Lamentations that we read on Tisha B’Avdescribing the terrible punishment the people have endured for past sins these many years of exile and now, the promise from God Himself, “I, I am He who comforts you.”  If the words of the prophets sound empty, then know that the Lord Himself,with all His power, has forgiven past sins and He is the true Comforter.  God is removing the “cup of wrath” from your hand and giving it to your tormentors.  “Awake, awake, O Zion!  Clothe yourself in splendor; put on your robes of majesty.”  He promises that “every eye shall behold the Lord’s return to Zion.” “The Lord is marching before you, the God of Israei is your rearguard.”

 

As we enter the fifth week of consolation, God continues to offer promises of renewal and forgiveness.  “He who made you, will espouse you – His name is Lord of Hosts – the Holy One of Israel will redeem you.”  “For a little while I forsook you, but with vast love I will bring you back. In slight anger for a moment, I hid My face from you; but with kindness everlasting, I will take you back in love.”  At this point, we have entered the month of Elul, the month of the reconciliation of God and Israel.  Moses ascends the mountain once more on the first of Elul to receive the second set of tablets which he will bring down on Yom Kippur.

 

Truly, it is a new day for the people who have previously suffered in exile.  In the sixth haftarah, the prophet cries out, “Arise, shine, for your light has dawned…nations shall walk by your light, kings by your shining radiance.” The prophet paints a beautiful picture of the ingathering of exiles. “No longer shall you need the sun for light by day, nor the shining of the moonfor radiance by night.  For the Lord shall be your light everlasting.”

 

And now, at last, we are in the final week approaching the new year and no longer do we need to call for comfort.  We have come from “nachamu” to a new point of celebration.  “Sos asis badonay, I greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being exults in my God.” The image is of a bride and groom celebrating their wedding day, God and Israel are reunited in an intimate embrace.  “For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent, for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still.”  “Nevermore shall you be called ‘forsaken,’ nor shall your land be called “desolate.”  “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” (An image incorporated into the L’cha Dodi.)  The prophet very graphically portrays the punishment of our enemies and assures His people of redemption.  This last haftarah concludes with the words, “In all their troubles He was troubledand the angel of His presence delivered them.  In His love and pity He Himself redeemed them, raised them and exalted them, all the days of old.”

 

This is the journey we have begun once more this year, seeking to return to God’s good graces, to prepare ourselves for the new year.  From the depths of despair we rise to great joy, celebrating our God who embraces us once more at this time of year.  Rosh Hashanah is a joyous day in spite of the image of God sitting on the throne of judgment. As Rabbi Akiva noted in the Mishnah, “How fortunate are you, Israel.  Before whom are you purified and who purifies you?  It is your Father in heaven…just as a mikveh (a ritual bath) purifies the impure, so too, the Holy Bless One purifies Israel.” Playing on the word “Mikveh” which is both a ritual bath, but also means hope, Akiva speaks of God as the “Hope of Israel,” Mikveh Yisrael, the One who purifies us.  Since we are filled with hope for the new year, this season purifies us and prepares us to meet its challenges.

 

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