Shoftim: Where do we find comfort?

 Rabbi Philip WeintraubCongregation B’nai Israel

August 14, 2021

If I were to walk into a room and shout:

 אָנֹכִ֧י אָנֹכִ֛י ה֖וּא מְנַחֶמְכֶ֑ם מִי־אַ֤תְּ וַתִּֽירְאִי֙ מֵאֱנ֣וֹשׁ יָמ֔וּת וּמִבֶּן־אָדָ֖ם חָצִ֥יר יִנָּתֵֽן׃ 

I, I am He who comforts you! What ails you that you fear Man who must die, Mortals who fare like grass? 

How would you interpret it.  Would you push me out the door or welcome me in?

         Our haftorah opens with Isaiah, speaking for God, to the people Israel, these very words.  The people are in exile, but there seems to be some hope for the future.  Isaiah offers a window into what life could be, if only the people would listen!

         After words of comfort, the haftorah switches tracks, now that the people know what could happen to them, they are given a map, a course, a road to that possibility.  They are told they must not forget their God, as God certainly remembers them!  Again, this is a road map, if they only listen to God, they will return to the Promised Land. 

         Isaiah comforts not only the people, but the land of Israel, as well.  Speaking to Zion and Jerusalem, he reassures them that their people will return, that the end of her people’s exile is in sight.  A new exodus will begin, a new song will be heard, God will protect the Jews as they return triumphant to their homeland.

         The poetry of this haftorah is beautiful, the parallelism and middah c’neged middah is comforting.  Hearing that those who have oppressed us will themselves be oppressed is reassuring, knowing that the wicked will pay their price, just as we paid for our sins.

         It is no wonder that Reform Judaism (and some Christians) have held so tightly to the prophets in the last two centuries.  Hearing the words of divine benevolence and wrath can be quite comforting.  At the same time, it inspires us to rise up, to uri, uri, to awaken ourselves, just as Zion is asked to awaken.

         If only we listen to God, if only we observe the commandments, then everything will work out, redemption will be at hand! 

         Except, but, umm

         It doesn’t always feel so simple.  Year after year, we follow the dictates of the unatanah tokef, we do tshuva, we pray, we make our charitable contributions, and yet, moshiach hasn’t come.  Yes, we thank God for the potential first blooms of redemption, in the State of Israel, yet we know Israel has a long way to go before it looks like the messianic ideal of Torah.  Even there, it seems, a long road remains.

         So where does that leave us? How do we respond?  We have a map or GPS, a plan, a route, but it seems rather circuitous.  It seems like we are wandering in our own wilderness.  We keep trying, but we just cannot get there—internally, externally, spiritually, physically.  No matter how much we try our kavannah, our intention, fades or is distracted. When we try to pray, someone sneezes, a child cries, our mind wanders.  When we give money, we find the organization’s goals do not match our intentions.  We called the cousin that we haven’t spoken to in twenty years, but we still don’t like them—or they don’t return our calls.

         In that mindset is where Isaiah can connect to us perfectly.  Isaiah knows about lost concentration.  Isaiah knows about good intentions.  Isaiah knows about failure and giving up, of an economy that keeps missing the mark.

         It is in THESE times, when WE are struggling that God can be found.  In addition to the words of this haftorah, when we are assured that, with God’s help, we will soon return to an ideal Israel, I think regularly of the words in 1 Kings chapter 19.  There Elijah is downtrodden.  He is suicidal.  He goes to God at Horeb/Sinai and says, I’m done, I’m out, I’ve had enough.  These people don’t listen.  Why should I bother?  (Of course, those questions are asked by a lot of rabbis (and others) at difficult moments of their lives!)

 How does God respond?

יא  וַיֹּאמֶר, צֵא וְעָמַדְתָּ בָהָר לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה עֹבֵר וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, לֹא בָרוּחַ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ, לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְהוָה.

11 And He said: 'Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.' And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake;

יב  וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ, לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ, קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה.

12 and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 

God does not respond in thunder and lightning--although she might announce herself that way.  God responds in a still, small voice.  God responds in a gentle whisper, the sound of silence, from within, a voice so soft that you must lean in, must listen intently, a voice you can hear only when the room is quiet enough to hear a pin drop.

And in that voice, what does God say to Elijah?  He says, “Go back.”  God says, you were doing what you were supposed to do.  You have to keep trying.  You have to keep fighting everyone--and yourself!  You are not done yet.  I promise.  You’ll know when your mission is complete, but it isn’t yet.  You have more lessons to teach, more living to do.  God says, you have to keep doing what you are doing, but do it more, do it with more intensity.  What does God do next, but send Elijah on a mission, but sends him along a certain road.  On that road, he meets Elisha, who will become his disciple and his successor.

That is also our prophetic lesson.  In addition to continuing, we have to find our students and teachers.  We need to find those that bring out our best, that help us to find the wisdom hidden within.

You have your GPS, you have your map, you’ve packed your bag.  Rosh Hashanah is coming, are you ready to take the first step--within yourself?  


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