Thursday, 07 Aug 2014

Written by Rabbi Amanda Golby

Most Shabbatot of our year are known by the name of the Torah portion that we read. A few are better known by the name of the Haftarah, and we tend to call this week, Shabbat Nachamu rather than Shabbat Va’Etchanan.  I shall try to look at both Sedra and Haftarah.

There used to be a radio programme called ‘The Tingle Factor’ when guests were asked to choose those pieces of music which so move them that they literally ‘tingle’. There are moments of the Jewish year that also have that effect on me, and one such is when I hear the opening words of our Haftarah,  ‘Nachamu, nachamu ami’ . ‘Comfort My people, comfort them, says your God’.  (Isaiah 40). It is a special moment because it is the indicator that however difficult it may have been to mark the time leading up to Tisha B’Av, and the day itself last Monday night and Tuesday, we have done it well enough, and now that time is past, and there is comfort and hope rather than the message of destruction and despair.

However that is the ideal, and, in Judaism, in life, we must too often deal with the reality. I prepare this not knowing what the situation will be in Israel, in Gaza, in a week’s time when it will be read, but knowing that, at the present time, there is an abundance of pain, and very little comfort.  This year we have had no difficulty in marking the Three Weeks from 17th Tammuz to Tisha B’Av, and in one way, the problem is in leaving them behind. I hope and pray that by the time this is read, there will be a lasting cease-fire, and dare to hope that this can lead, in time, to a true peace, and a real message of comfort.

There also seems to me an extra irony in that this past week we have commemorated the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, described so often as ‘the war to end all wars’, while we know of all that has happened since, and the fact that in over 100 years, there have been barely a handful of days when there has not been fighting somewhere in the world. Sometimes it is difficult to hold on to our ideals. Nevertheless without them we are in serious trouble.

In addition to our Haftarah, our Torah portion itself can provide very many Divrei Torah, containing as it does the Shema and the Deuteronomy version of the  aseret hadibrot, the 10 words, the 10 sayings, better known to us as the 10 Commandments.

What meaning do these have for us? Many have said to me over the years, something like, ‘I’m not really religious. I’m not sure about a great many of Jewish practices, but I try to be a good person, certainly I keep the 10 Commandments’. Hopefully we all try to be good people, and I would hope that is true for all peoples of faith, and those without any faith. However, how many of the 10 Commandments do people keep? How do we understand them? I’m sure that most people can say they are not murderers, and I’m sure that they are not in the sense of deliberately taking another’s life, but which one of us is truly blameless?

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Bloch of Telshe suggested a concept of murder more subtle and comprehensive than standard legal definitions. In the Talmud we learn that if we publicly embarrass someone, it is as though we shed blood because if the physical and emotional effect this can have. Certainly a little gossip or criticism cannot be considered murder in any real sense. However we have to admit that for most of us, the most profound pain ever caused us by other people was done with words, and we are aware that, sometimes totally inadvertently, we have likewise hurt people.

I found the above in ‘Broken Tablets: restoring the 10 Commandments and ourselves’ edited by Rabbi Rachel Mikva, and published in 1999, which I am happy to recommend. 

However, it is back to the theme of ‘ideal’ and ‘reality’, and at the present time, we are particularly aware of contradictions between the inspiring words of our tradition, wonderful teachings, especially on a Shabbat such as this, and what is happening, globally, and sometimes on a much smaller scale.  Very often I feel that many of our texts were written at times when life seemed bleak for different reasons, and provide a way of looking forward to the ideal.

There is so much that happens which is out of our control, and at times it can be too easy to despair. Nevertheless there is much, in our own small worlds, which we can control, choices that we have as to how we deal with different situations, the opportunities to make a difference in minute ways, which we hope will then ripple out. It is also important to remember that the wisdom of Jewish tradition does place a limit on our times of mourning, whether it is for our own personal loss, such as following bereavement, or when we mourn disasters that have befallen our people or indeed the whole world. Otherwise we could be mourning every day, and certainly over this latest crisis, there have been times when I have found it difficult to get on with daily life, but I know that this is important, perhaps even more important than when the outside world feels a rather safer place.

So, aware of the things which are out of our hands, we need to remember the words and interpretations of the Shema, of the 10 Commandments, and try to incorporate them into our lives, so that we can continue to work for a time when there really will be a lasting message of ‘nachamu, nachamu ami’, ‘Comfort My people, comfort them, says your God’.

Rabbi Amanda Golby
Ordained Leo Baeck College 1988

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.