Va’etchanan and Nachamu:In approaching God with our desires we may yet find comfort and the chance to rebuild

The Shabbat where we read parashat Va’etchanan is named for its haftarah: it is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of consolation.

After three weeks of haftarot that speak of rebuke, that have ratcheted up the anxious anticipation of the forthcoming cataclysm that is Tisha b’Av, we now begin the seven weeks of consolation, leading us to the possibility of a new start with God at Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that whatever the catastrophe, God is still there for us.

For a period of ten weeks we are liturgically reminded that it is time to put in the work to repair our relationship with God.

Va’etchanan begins with Moses reminding the people of his asking for God’s graciousness, asking to be allowed to enter the land that his whole life has been dedicated to guiding the nascent Jewish people towards.  He says “I besought God at that time saying, Adonai Elohim; you have begun to show your servant your greatness, the strength of your hand. For which god in heaven and earth can exist who does like you do? Please let me cross over so that I will see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.  But God was angry with me because of you (the way you behaved) and did not listen to me and said to me, ‘Enough, do not speak more of this matter’…  Go up to Pisgah and look [in all four directions] …and command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him….”

Va’etchanan ends an era, albeit with the pain and frustration of Moses played out publicly before the people. A line has been drawn; it is time for the next leader, the next stage of the people’s history.

Nachamu begins with the repeated imperative to “Comfort yourselves”. It goes on to speak to the heart of Jerusalem to say that that her time of service is over and her guilt paid off, that she has received from God double for all her sins.  A voice is calls: Clear the route of God in the wilderness, make a highway in the desert for our God. Every valley shall be raised, every mountain and hill diminished, the rugged will be levelled, the rough places smoothed.  And the glory of God will be revealed and everyone shall see it, for the mouth of God has spoken it”

One can read the Isaiah as a counterpoint to Va’etchanan, a response to Moses’ anguish that he will not be there to guide and escort the people in the land they are ready to enter: – Isaiah stresses the point that while yes the people will stray, God will still be there for them. The pathway that has led from Egypt to Mt Sinai, and from Mt Sinai to the Promised Land in a wandering and circuitous route, will become clear and defined and will link the people and God in a pathway that is easy to see and to tread.  The repetition of the imperative “Nachamu” echoes the repetition of the angel calling to Abraham at the site of the Akedah, reminding us that when we are so involved in our own ideas and world view it takes more than one call to drag us out of our intense concentration to be able to see a bigger picture.

But I think the Isaiah speaks not only to past time, but to present and future time. The passage speaks of a change in the landscape so that all the landmarks we are used to have gone, a levelling so that the valleys and mountains are brought together to one flat plain where no one and nothing can hide. It erases the peaks and the troughs, the domains of the heavens and the earth which shall never quite meet. Instead it speaks of human mortality and the eternity of the word of God. It speaks of catastrophic worldly and political change and of the consoling continuity of our relationship with God.

Whose is the voice calling in the wilderness demanding proclamation?  Whose is the voice asking what should be proclaimed?  Like the voice of the shofar at the revelation of Mt Sinai, these voices are ownerless in the text; we can claim them or project onto them.

The voices can be ours, demanding justice, demanding fairness, demanding relationship with God. Just as we are told that “the mouth of the Eternal has spoken” we are given a voice to speak back, to have a dialogue not only with each other but with our creator.

We are in the liturgical run-up to the Days of Awe, when God is said to be more present in the world, more willing to listen to us, more focussed on repairing the gaps that have emerged between us. As Isaiah reminds us “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever…. O you who tells good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength, lift it up and be unafraid, say to the cities of Judah “Behold your God”. Behold the Eternal God will come…even as a shepherd who feeds his flock, who gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in his breast…”

Immediately after Tisha b’Av in the shock of the loss it commemorates, it is important to re-orient ourselves from mourning to life, to repair our own lives and to work for the greater good of our communities so that the glory of God is to be revealed, so that everyone shall join the work of repairing our world.

Glorious summer – time to think of my soul as life begins over again

Summertime is always a quiet time in the life of a synagogue.  The families with children are away on holiday, the classes and courses stop for the duration, the long evenings and good weather tempt people to venture further away from home, and an atmosphere of indolence and tranquillity reigns. Well, almost.  Because while there may be fewer people around and routine committee meetings and classes take a break, the summer is in fact a time of frenetic activity.  It is just that the activity is ‘behind the scenes’ that it can go unnoticed.

There are a variety of levels of summertime behaviours in the Jewish world.  There is of course all the hard work that goes into making sure that the Autumn festivals – what one colleague calls the “Autumn manoeuvres” go well.  The choir and musicians rehearse their set pieces till souls soar on hearing them.  The administration sends out numerous letters and tickets, the wardens plan mitzvot and page numbers, the security people organise rotas, parents organise children’s services and activities, crèches and rooms, the Chair considers charities and writes the Kol Nidrei appeal, the Rabbis plan sermons and readings…. A beehive would look like a slothful place in comparison to the work that goes on behind the scenes planning for these special days.  And whatever date the services fall upon, they still seem to take us by surprise – have we notified the schools that our children wont be in? Have we invited people to break the fast with us? Is our sukkah still in working order or was last year’s rickety effort the final time it could be constructed? The list seems to grow longer the harder we work….

But there is other work to be done in preparation for these awesome days, and the work needs to also be planned and executed in these lovely summer days – that is the work of the soul, the taking stock of our lives and our selves in the bright yet warm light of God’s overseeing judgement. 

Many years ago I took a December holiday in the Southern hemisphere. Sitting on a beach and watching the people frolicking in the water, my mind kept wandering to phrases from the Machzor for the Yamim Noraim – the high holy day prayer book. Whole chunks of liturgy inserted themselves into my head, the Avinu Malkenu which begs God not to let us go empty handed, the Vidui – confessional prayers. The rather ominous image of the Master of the House who was waiting….  It was all so incongruous and rather disturbing.  Here I was some three months after the introspective fest, had celebrated Sukkot and danced at Simchat Torah – yet the powerful awareness of the days of Awe was pulling at me again.  And suddenly it clicked – it wasn’t that I was spiritually out of synch. but that I was temporally so – the change in hemisphere brought about a lurch in the seasons, and my whole body was geared to summer time means preparation, introspection, consideration of my life.  It was then that I realised just how much we are attuned to the cycle of nature in order to be attuned to our festivals.  Spring time means crocus, daffodils and matza. Dark evenings mean chanukiot and doughnuts. Summer time is the time to begin the work so that when we arrive at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are already engaged in the process that those festivals will clarify and enable.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur often surprise us simply because we haven’t begun the work early enough.  Then suddenly it is time to stop and think, and there is too much to do, too little time.

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the Great Gatsby “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”  

So this summer, while the weather is glorious and the temptation is to slow down and relax a little, do just that, but remember too that this is the signal to begin the preparation if you are to get the most out of the solemn period that constitutes the yamim noraim, the days of awe and repentance.