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July 26, 2013

Parshat Eikev

Isaiah 49:14 - 51:3

This week’s Haftarah, from the Book of Isaiah, is a lesson in the challenges of giving and receiving comfort. Like all of the Seven Haftarot of Consolation following Tisha b’Av, of which it is the second, the setting of this Haftarah is the aftermath of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of the city was brutal, and the exile of the Judeans to Babylon was an immense hardship for the faithful, who longed to return to Zion.

The prophet Isaiah personifies Jerusalem and imagines the desolate city as repeatedly seeking comfort. At the beginning of the Haftarah, Zion claims, “The Lord has forsaken me / My Lord has forgotten me.” In response, the prophet proclaims God’s everlasting attention to Jerusalem, “I never could forget you / See, I have engraved you / On the palms of My hands.” Still not reassured, Zion questions, “Can spoil be taken from a warrior, / Or captives retrieved from a victor?” “Indeed,” God responds, “Captives shall be taken from a warrior / And spoil shall be retrieved from a tyrant.” To an unspoken concern that, despite God’s care and promise, God is incapable of redeeming the city, the prophet extols God’s power – “with a mere rebuke I dry up the sea / And turn rivers into desert.”

Many of us, when we have been in need of comfort, have probably found ourselves falling into this same pattern of repeatedly seeking reassurance and of not believing it when we get it. Many of us, when we have given comfort, have probably found ourselves repeatedly offering reassurance and of not being believed when we do.

And it’s no wonder. In the three main give-and-takes in this week’s Haftarah between personified Zion and God as represented by Isaiah, God is able to offer unwavering attention, knowledge of the future, and unlimited power. Even so, it is only at the very end of the Haftarah that Zion is truly comforted, “Her wilderness like Eden / Her desert like the Garden of the Lord.”

That’s a standard we mere humans can’t match. Our attention can be distracted, we can’t know the future, and we’re limited by what is humanly possible. And we certainly can’t turn any place or any situation into paradise.

When we seek comfort from others, or when we offer it, we need to move away from the realm of reassurance as it is presented by the prophet Isaiah. Only God can know whether a person who is suffering really will be ok or do anything to make that the case. The rest of us must understand comfort differently, perhaps as presence or support. When we seek comfort, we need to accept that those who care for us will continue to care for us as we suffer, rather than expect them to relieve all suffering. When we offer comfort, we can offer our continued attention, even though we can’t make the situation all better. We can pledge to continue visiting, to continue helping with the grocery shopping and other errands, to continue caring about the person who is suffering, without promising a paradise that only God can deliver.

This week's Haftarah commentary was written by Rabbi Catharine Clark. Rabbi Catharine Clark is a graduate of the rabbinical school at JTS and the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Shalom in London, Ontario.

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