A Nuanced View of Comfort: Hazon 5779

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.[1]

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.

For example, tonight in Eikha the lament opens with the image of Zion as a weeping woman whose friends have all betrayed her, becoming like enemies. אֵין לָהּ מְנַחֵם מִכָּל אֹהֲבֶיהָ, she has no comforter from all who once loved her. In contrast, next Shabbat we will read the rousing introduction to second Isaiah, נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, give comfort, give comfort, to my people says your God!

To comfort another person is to speak to their heart. Second Isaiah continues, דַּבְּרוּ עַל לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ—speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call out to her. This text echoes the account of Joseph comforting his brother’s after their father’s funeral. The brothers plead with Joseph not to kill them, but merely to enslave them. He chides them first, and then comforts them, speaking to their hearts: וַיְנַחֵם אוֹתָם וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לִבָּם, he comforted them, he spoke to their hearts.

The ability to comfort another person requires internal work—sensitivity and compassion, and this brings us to the second form of the verb, the nifal or passive version. In fact, the nifal version of this verb is ambiguous, dependent on context. BDB offers, “be sorry, console oneself.” That first sense, to be sorry, works well with the piel. We could say that a person who observes calamity may have an internal response of pity, the nifal, which then leads to the externalization, the instinct to offer comfort in the piel transitive version of the verb.

Then there is the second cluster of definitions for the nifal, and these are not about pity, but regret. Niham: To rue, suffer grief, repent. We encounter this form early in the Torah when God regrets creating people, וַיִּנָּחֶם ה’ כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם, then the Lord regretted having made Adam (Gen. 6:6). This is not an altruistic emotion but one more linked to shame and revulsion. God is upset about having made people and is prepared to wipe most of them out. This nifal version, signaling an internal change of opinion, is not always negative. For example, after the golden calf incident, God proposes to wipe out Israel and reboot with Moses, but after Moses intervenes on behalf of the people, God relents of this evil plan, and instead offers forgiveness: וַיִּנָּחֶם ה’ עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ, then God relented from the evil that he had planned to do to his people (Exodus 32:14). The Bible’s depiction of God is not of an unmoved mover, but of an emotional and dynamic deity, often prepared to reconsider commitments, for better or for worse.

This brings us to our haftarah, which is an example of God shifting perspective for the worse, falling out of love with Israel. Toward the end of our haftarah, we find another example of the nifal form of the verb NHM in Isaiah 1:24:

לָכֵן נְאֻם הָאָדוֹן ה’ צְבָאוֹת אֲבִיר יִשְׂרָאֵל הוֹי אֶנָּחֵם מִצָּרַי וְאִנָּקְמָה מֵאוֹיְבָי:

It is hard to translate this verse, but let’s go with JPS: Assuredly, this is the declaration of the Sovereign, the Lord of Hosts, the mighty One of Israel:
Ah, I will get satisfaction from my foes; I will wreak vengeance on my enemies!”

In the Hebrew you see the verb אנחם, which is the nifal form, but what does this have to do with comfort? Notice that the verse begins with a big build up of God, who gets three impressive titles, אדון, ה’ צבאות, אביר יעקב—quite a build up for a mighty proclamation—this mighty God is going to vanquish its enemy. Who might God’s enemies be? Verse 25 makes it clear—the people of Israel has become God’s enemy! It is a terrible assertion—even the prophet cannot sustain this claim for more than a verse. In 26 we already have a redemptive promise, that God will restore our magistrates and counselors as of old. This promise is precious and made its way into our daily Amidah.

But the rabbis noticed the first claim, that God regretted not only making humanity in Genesis, but also the special love for Israel in Isaiah. In Midrash Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman says that God can uproot one set of inhabitants, and replace them with another set, עוקר דייורין ומכניס דייורין. Meaning, Israel has no permanent place in God’s heart or on God’s land. But Rabbi Tanhum says that this verse reveals after all the strength of Israel.

Interestingly these two perspectives are brought by rabbis with the word NHM embedded in their very names—Nahman and Tanhum. It’s as if to say that this word is a paradox. If the verse sense of the nifal verb is one of pity that leads to comfort, the second sense is one of deep disappointment leading to anger and violent vengeance.

Later rabbis also struggled with these two perspectives. The sixteenth century Moses Al Sheikh understood the image in our haftarah to refer to God relinquishing love for a people who act violently, and also for their judges who fail to object. But Metzudat David, a father-son commentary of the late 17, early 18th centuries, understands God relinquishing not love but anger. Yes, you really angered me, but I will release my anger, and restore your judges as before.

It seems to me that the two senses of NHM are mirror images, and both are about a shift in perspective. The friendly form imagines an observer being moved to compassion, and then offering comfort to another person, perhaps by helping them see that they are not alone in their grief, and that they will find the strength to survive and live once more. I wrote an article after my mother died about this positive shift in perspective, and its connection to our traditional expression of comfort, “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” (I’ll send it to the list after Shabbat). But the second sense, the negative one, is also about a shift. One party once felt close to another, attached, in love. And then suddenly it all appeared to be a ruse, a lie; revulsion replaces attachment, hatred replaces love, and violence follows.

We have all seen this story before, most unfortunately. The divine character in the Tanakh is much like a jilted lover, filled with rage. And yet, the Tanakh never leaves things there. There is always a reconciliation, a path back to positive relationship, to rebuilding of trust. The threat of replacement—that God will find another people to love, that Israel will be exiled, its temple destroyed, its sacrifices rejected, its moral worth in tatters—is the worst horror imaginable. Judaism teaches us to imagine this very thing, to stare the worst of all worlds, but not to give up hope. Somehow, we can learn from experience and restore what once was.

Lynn and I just returned from a vacation abroad. Just a few nights ago we sat outside at a Tuscan farm, and I found myself speaking with the farmer in his broken English and my minimal Italian. The stars were brilliant, and he said that we should soon see some “falling stars” (referring to the Perseids). I nodded and said in English we call them “shooting stars.” Ah yes, he said, you Americans are into shooting. It brought me home quickly, to the dismal realities of three mass shootings in our country in one week—in California, Texas and Ohio—and though each case is different, there is a point of connection, of rage. And I think it may have something to do with the internal experience of revulsion, the sudden shift from a health sympathy for others and their suffering, to a violent alienation, a rage, that leads to wrathful and violent action.

We are all trying to get a grip on this rage in American society, especially the rage of the white supremacists, with their paranoid fear of being replaced. The thing is that they are not entirely paranoid. It is true that the country is changing, in many ways that are unfamiliar. The ethnic and racial complexion of America is changing; politics are changing; understanding of gender and sexuality is changing; the economy is changing, and of course the environment is changing. It is a lot to absorb. For many of us, these changes are mostly for the better, and we are eager for the opportunities that they offer. But we need to understand that the fear of replacement, of feeling unloved and unwanted—useless—is a very powerful rebuke.

I don’t think we can make that feeling disappear, but we can offer a narrative that is less hopeless. Somehow, we need to get out a broader message that is not about blame but about courage. That there can be a third act, in which something familiar and comforting can return even when so much else has changed.

The wisdom of Tisha B’Av is that we give tragedy its due. We force ourselves to look into loss and despair, to imagine ourselves this time not exiting Egypt and slavery, but exiting Israel and freedom for exile. It is a painful shift of perspective, but it is not the end. It never is. Rebuke and ruin lead to renewal, if only we can hear the message of justice and compassion. We need politicians who can carry that message—not about tearing down structures, but about tying us back together into a faithful and just and kind society. That is the hopeful message with which our haftarah ends, and it should be our own motto as we try to heal a divided nation:

Zion shall be saved through righteousness—and so too shall America, if we can bring the message of hope and renewal to our fellow citizens.


איכה פרק א, ב

בָּכוֹ תִבְכֶּה בַּלַּיְלָה וְדִמְעָתָהּ עַל לֶחֱיָהּ אֵין לָהּ מְנַחֵם מִכָּל אֹהֲבֶיהָ כָּל  רֵעֶיהָ בָּגְדוּ בָהּ הָיוּ לָהּ לְאֹיְבִים:

ישעיהו פרק מ, א-ב

(א) נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: (ב) דַּבְּרוּ עַל לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד ה’ כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל חַטֹּאתֶיהָ:

בראשית פרק נ, יט-כא

(יט) וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף אַל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי: (כ) וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה לְמַעַן עֲשֹׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהַחֲיֹת עַם רָב: (כא) וְעַתָּה אַל תִּירָאוּ אָנֹכִי אֲכַלְכֵּל אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת טַפְּכֶם וַיְנַחֵם אוֹתָם וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לִבָּם:

בראשית פרק ו, ו

וַיִּנָּחֶם ה’ כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל לִבּוֹ:

שמות פרק לב, יד

(יד) וַיִּנָּחֶם ה’ עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ:

ישעיהו פרק א פסוק כד

לָכֵן נְאֻם הָאָדוֹן ה’ צְבָאוֹת אֲבִיר יִשְׂרָאֵל הוֹי אֶנָּחֵם מִצָּרַי וְאִנָּקְמָה מֵאוֹיְבָי:

פסיקתא דרב כהנא (מנדלבוים) פיסקא טו – איכה

[י] לכן נאם האדון י”י צבאות אביר ישראל (שם שם /ישעיהו א’/ כד). א”ר שמואל בר נחמן כל מקום שנ’ נאם האדון, עוקר דייורין ומכניס דייורין. ביניין אב שבכולם, הנה ארון הברית אדון כל הארץ עובר לפניכם בירדן (יהושע ג: יא), עוקר כנענים ומכניס ישר’. אביר ישראל (ישעיה שם /א’/), א”ר תנחום בר חנילאי תקפיהון דישר’. ורבנין אמרין אביר ישראל (שם /ישעיהו א’/), לפני אומות העולם.

[יא] הוי אנחם מצרי ואנקמה מאויבי (ישעיה א: כד). ר’ יודה ור’ נחמיה. ר’ יודה א’ היה לאותו האיש עשרה זהובים ואת עוקם עליו ונוטלן ממנו, א’ הקדוש ברוך הוא עלי לשלם לו גמולו ולהיפרע מאותו האיש. ור’ נחמיה א’ הוי אנחם מצרי (שם /א’/), שתים, ואנקמה מאויביי (שם /א’/), שתים, אילו ארבע מלכיות. ואשיבה שופטיך כבראשונה ויועציך כבתחילה וג’ (שם /א’/ כו). ואשיבה שופטיך כבראשונה, זה משה ואהרן. ויועציך כבתחילה, זה דוד ושלמה. ואחרי כן יקרא לך עיר הצדק וג’ (שם /א’/), ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה (שם /א’/ כז). חסילה.

רש”י ישעיהו פרק א פסוק כד. נאם האדון – שהכל שלו ובידו לעקור אתכם מארצכם ולנטוע בה אחרים: אביר ישראל – תקפו של ישראל:

אלשיך[2] על ישעיהו פרק א פסוק כד

אמר הוי אנחם מצרי הם פועלי האון בפועל עושקי יתום ואלמנה, ואנקמה מאויבי הם הדיינים הנקראים אויבים, שהם בשב ואל תעשה מאבדים דין יתום ואלמנה שיתום לא ישפוטו. אך אתה המון קריה אחר שעיקר העון אינו עליך:

מצודת דוד[3] ישעיהו פרק א פסוק כד

(כד) האדון – שהכל שלו ובידו מאין מוחה: אנחם – במה שאשלם כגמול אנחם על הכעס שהכעסוני:

[1]   בבלי בבא בתרא דף יד עמוד ב. מכדי ישעיה קדים מירמיה ויחזקאל, ליקדמיה לישעיה ברישא! כיון דמלכים סופיה חורבנא וירמיה כוליה חורבנא, ויחזקאל רישיה חורבנא וסיפיה נחמתא, וישעיה כוליה נחמתא, סמכינן חורבנא לחורבנא ונחמתא לנחמתא.

[2] Rabbi Moses (Maharam) Alshech was born in Turkey in 1507, and died sometime after 1593. Alshech came from a family of Spanish origin. He emigrated to Israel and settled in Safed, where he became a dayyan in the rabbinical court headed by Rabbi Joseph Caro.

[3] R. David and his son R. Hillel Altschuler lived in Prague in Galicia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Together they wrote a commentary on the Prophets and Hagiographa which consists of two parts: Metzudot David, which explains the plain sense of the biblical text, and Metzudot Zion, which explains the meaning of difficult words in the Bible.