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July 19, 2013

This commentary is a reprint of an original written and published in 2012 by Rabbi Dan Liben.

Parshat Va'etchanan
Shabbat Nachamu

Isaiah 40:1-26

There are moments in history that take our breath away; that, at least momentarily, render null and void our normal assumptions about life’s inexorable predictability. Think of the fall of the Berlin Wall, or Israel’s daring rescue at Entebbe. We may even sense a greater hand at work, an intimation of something beyond nature, of the miraculous. Many of us remember experiencing Israel’s spectacular deliverance in the Lightening War of June 1967 in that way.

The fall of Babylonia to the Persians, barely 50 years after the Destruction and Exile of 586BCE, was clearly an event of that magnitude, and is most likely the background for the prophesies found in the second half of the Book of Isaiah. Cyrus of Persia decreed that the Jews, an exiled people, could return to their land. The news was almost too great to take in. Had God forgiven Israel for the sins for which Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed? Could punishment, and history, be overturned so easily, just like that? In the opening words of the text, God commands the heavenly troops to go forth and declare it so:

"Comfort, oh comfort My people, /Says your God./ Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,/ And declare to her/ that her term of service is over…"

The prophet then pushes us towards a radical shifting from the human to the Divine perspective. From that vantage of expansiveness, we are able to sense the transiency of nations and nature alike: "The nations are but a drop in a bucket,/Reckoned as dust on a balance;/The very coastlands He lifts like motes.…All nations are as naught in His sight;/He accounts them as less than nothing."

And from that vantage point, we begin to sense that even the most oppressive empires are only passing phenomena:

He Brings potentates to naught,/Makes rulers of the earth as nothing./Hardly are they planted,/ Hardly are they sown,/ Hardly has their stem/ Taken root in earth,/ When He blows upon them and they dry up,/ And the storm bears them off like straw. /To whom, then, can you liken Me,/ To whom can I be compared?/ Says the Holy one.

This Haftarah is the first of a series of seven Haftarot of Consolation, which are meant to lift us from the depths of Tisha B’av so that we will be ready to greet the New Year with joy. As we begin the upward swing towards Rosh Hashannah, Isaiah urges us to stretch our vision, to sense the expansive and miraculous nature of things just under the surface of the everyday.

It is a challenge. We feel constricted by worries, burdens and even demons, of all kinds. Yet, the tyrannies of the heart, no less so than the tyrannies of armies and nations, are passing phenomena that can be overcome, when we see them through the spacious and compassionate perspective of God. Shabbat Shalom.

This week's Haftarah commentary was written by Rabbi Dan Liben. Rabbi Liben was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and has served as the Rabbi of Temple Israel of Natick for 22 years. He loves Israeli Dancing and teaches mindfulness meditation.

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