Sermon Notes 09/08/13 - VaEtchanan & Nachamu 5774
The palpable sense of relief that generally follows
Tisha B’Av is absent this year. I usually
feel that having spent three weeks contemplating the destruction of the Temple
and other horrors of Jewish history, I’ve met my obligation and can leave Tisha
B’Av refreshed, ready for the summer holidays and with one eye already on Rosh
HaShanah. This year, however, given the
recent conflict in Israel and the shocking increase in anti-Semitism in Europe,
the air is heavy, laden with uncertainty and ambivalence – almost guilt – at having
moved back to normal life post-Tisha B’Av.
It feels to me that the notoriously flimsy boundary between valid
criticism and naked anti-Semitism is in danger of collapse.
This past week, the spectre of divestment from Israel again raised its
head. I suspect that for many it will be the anti-Israel
instrument of choice for in the months ahead, in preference to the rather
more demanding option of reasoned discussion.
Those it affects most are our students on campus, who often find
themselves on the front line of anti-Israel hostility. Even if their
convictions are strong, their Israel experience is characterised by the
constant need to justify and defend. The
opportunity that I had as a student to create what Ambassador Daniel Taub once
described to me as ‘my Israel’ narrative – the space that allowed me to
consider what Israel meant to me, what I aspired for it to be and what my role
might be in attaining that – is commonly denied our students, who are constantly
on the back foot.
It is in that vein that we turn to today’s haftarah, the first of the
so-called ‘seven of comfort’ read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShanah,
selected from the 40th chapter of Isaiah. It starts with the famous line:
נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם
Comfort, comfort My people, says
your God. (Isaiah 40:1)
To whom is God is addressing His
words – who should comfort My people?
The Aramaic Targum offers the obvious answer – God is speaking through
Isaiah to His prophets:
נבייא אתנביאו תנחומין על עמי
My prophets! Prophesy comfort to My
people. (Targum Onkelos ad loc.)
This reading (also favoured by
Rashi) does not address the repetition of the word נחמו – comfort, something that
can only be understood properly with reference to the next verse:
דברו על לב ירושלם... כי מלאה צבאה כי נרצה עונה כי
לקחה מיד ידוד כפלים בכל חטאתיה
Speak to the heart of Jerusalem... her time of estrangement has been fulfilled and her transgression
has been forgiven, for she has been doubly punished by God for all her sins.
It seems that the Jewish people
require a double measure of comfort because their punishment has been doubled,
a view validated by midrashic sources (e.g. Midrash Tanchuma Devarim 1).
Whatever the intention of the
verses, we are only too familiar with this ‘double punishment’ – the media distortions,
the obvious double standards of Israel’s detractors (where are the mass demonstrations
against daily massacres in Syria and exterminations in Iraq?) and the frequent
uncritical adoption of a single version of a war narrative, when, as always,
there are multiple perspectives.
If we are subject to ‘double
punishment’, we need double comfort, as God demanded from our prophets. They must replace pain with comfort,
negativity with positivity and despair with hope.
But today there are no prophets and
so the call of Isaiah must go out to their modern-day substitutes – the leaders
of our communities. That call is not restricted
to rabbis or other formal leaders, but it goes out to everyone engaged in
Jewish life who is able to do something.
All of us can write a letter to an MP or minister, respond to a
blog-post, speak out sensibly against all bias and bigotry, attend an event, support
communal efforts to counteract the negativity and inspire others to do
An unfathomable aspect of
the current situation is the unwillingness of many free-world leaders to articulate
something obvious. Many of
those who violently attack and seek the ultimate elimination of the State of
Israel, and especially their financial backers, harbour the same long-term intentions
towards Christians and, indeed, the whole of Western society. As much as we worry about events in Israel
and Europe, we are not oblivious to the brutal, barbaric persecutions of Christians
and Yazidis in Iraq. I believe that Israel
and the Jews are just first in line; in reality, the very fabric of our society
is imperilled for all people, regardless of faith or creed. Emphasising these
threats is one way of focusing the attention of others.
Yet as well as highlighting these wrongs,
we must double our message of hope and comfort.
If the pain is doubled, the message of hope must be doubly powerful.
The importance of articulating the
message is highlighted by Isaiah a few verses further into his prophecy:
על הר גבה עלי לך מבשרת ציון הרימי בכח קולך מבשרת ירושלם הרימי אל תיראי
Ascend a high mountain, herald of Zion.
Raise your voice powerfully, herald of Jerusalem. Raise it, do not be afraid...
We have to carry our message of hope to high places and speak it where it
can be heard. We should never
underestimate the impact we can have, nor where we have friends – sometimes
critical friends – but friends nonetheless.
They are everywhere, members of every religious groups – Christians,
Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists – and of none.
They exist at the workplace, among journalists and at universities. We must redouble our efforts to build
friendly, functional relationships with them, even when we disagree about
Israel, or, indeed, anything else.
This is one message of hope. The
other is that that our voice, even if it small, cannot and will not be
נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם