Shabbat Hazon is one of only three Shabbatot known primarily for its haftarah—the others being Nahamu next week and Shuvah during the ten days. Our haftarah from Isaiah 1 culminates the three weeks of admonition (תלתא דפורענותא) and sets the stage for tonight’s reading of Eikhah. To understand this transition and its contemporary significance we will begin with Hebrew grammar, proceed to biblical theology and end with American politics. Together, it’s about changing perspective, accepting the reality of painful and permanent changes, and building new identity on the still smoldering ruins of a vanished world.
We begin with grammar. The Hebrew root נחמ has much to do with comfort. As a noun, it forms נחמה, comfort, a loving response to loss. A person who offers comfort is called a מנחם, a comforter, and names like Menahem, Nahman and Nehama offer the hope that after a painful loss, a child can fill the void, bringing new life to a family. Jewish Aramaic has the same word—נחמתא—and the seven weeks following Tisha B’Av are known as the seven weeks of comfort, שבעתא דנחמתא, whose haftaroth are all taken from the second half of Isaiah, which the Talmud claims is a book entirely dedicated to comfort.
As a verb, נחמ appears in several forms, or binyanim, as the 7 Hebrew verb forms are known. According to the Brown, Driver, Briggs lexicon (636-7) there are four forms, but for simplicity’s sake we will focus on only two, the piel and nifal. You know the piel—it is basically a simple verb, like לדבר, to speak, and מדבר, speaking. לנחם is to comfort, and מנחם is comforting. It is a transitive verb, something one does for another. It’s what a decent character does to console another over a loss. Failure to offer comfort to a person in despair is indecent—the height of cruelty and betrayal. Continue reading