The prophet Isaiah by James Tissot, ca. 1900
The prophet Isaiah by James Tissot, ca. 1900

To see clearly, seek comfort in community

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Va’etchanan

Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Isaiah 40:1-26

Shabbat Nachamu


The “Sabbath of comforting” takes its name from this week’s haftarah from the prophet Isaiah that speaks of “comforting” the Jewish people for their suffering. It the first of seven haftarahs of consolation leading up to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Parashat Vaetchanan contains the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9).

Hear, Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might. And these words that I charge you today shall be upon your heart. And you shall rehearse them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you go on the way and when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as circlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and in your gates.

This is written in the singular for the individual. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes that we can learn something about the call to the individual from the practice of saying the Shema. We may not always be aware of Kriat Shema, but it is a part of what we really are; our existence is built upon it.

By tradition, one says the Shema at least twice daily, once in the morning and once at night (“when you lie down, and when you get up”). Many also say it before going to sleep, commonly known as Kriat Shema Sh’al Hamita (recitation of the Shema by the bed). On the Sabbath and holidays, it is also said as part of the Torah service, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur and on the death bed.

The first portion of the Shema, found in our Torah portion, deals with the individual, “And you shall love … with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might. And these words that I charge you today shall be upon your heart.”

The simple recitation, by an individual, is a muscle-building spiritual practice. It requires no rabbi or cantor, dues-paying membership or much Hebrew skill. It builds mindfulness. It is more than attending services; it is less than five minutes. It is Jewish yoga for the soul.

San Francisco’s Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) taught: “Spiritual practice won’t change what happens. Rather, it will help us to experience what happens not as evil, but simply as what happens.”

Spiritual practice can allow us to see what happens more clearly, and to respond to it with compassion and with love.

Such as calamities. In the Jewish spiritual calendar, Tisha B’Av, the ninth of this Hebrew month, fell last Shabbat. Those who fast on this day did so on Sunday; Shabbat is Shabbat, after all. It is a mediation on the destruction of both the First Temple and Second Temple. Spiritual practice will not prevent tragedy. It will empower us to care for each other afterward.

Perhaps that is why our haftarah, Isaiah 40:1-26, read after Tisha B’Av, is in the plural, to the community: Nachamu, nachamu ami, yomer eloheichem. “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.”

Rabbi Steinsaltz teaches that the tension that exists everywhere between community and individual are not incidental: they are built into the dialectical relationship between them.

Kriat Shema is written in the singular. Nachamu, nachamu is written in the plural. One must remember the individual and keep in mind that all the community is made up, first and foremost, of individuals, with a spiritual biography and essential worth. Everyone. When that is lacking, no communal work will do any good; for in the final analysis, the community begins and ends with that which the individual can do.

From the Department of Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: Much of the deep thoughts of this week’s Torah column are inspired by an essay from “The Seven Lights,” by Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael Steinsaltz; text translations by UC Berkeley scholar Robert Alter.

From the Department of Shameless Promotion: If you would like to study the Talmud from the Steinsaltz translation and commentary, contact me at peretz@lehrhaus.org.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan is the chief program officer and senior educator at Lehrhaus Judaica. He can be reached at peretz@lehrhaus.org.