This week is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of comfort. We are supposed to derive comfort that Tisha B’Av is behind us. Last week, we recalled how the destruction of the Temple was brought about by sin’at hinam, the causeless hatred that Jews showed towards one another. When we enter the month of Av, we nickname this month Menachem Av, the month of Av the comforts. The name of the month de-emphasized the prominent day of destruction and emphasizes the hopeful tone of the rest of the month. We are supposed to be more optimistic about our redemption. Alas, this Shabbat follows a very difficult week in Israel that leaves me wondering where the comfort is.
On Thursday, six people were stabbed and injured at the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem. The alleged perpetrator was a Haredi man who had just been released from prison a few weeks ago after serving a sentence for the exact same act at the exact same parade ten years ago.
Then, Thursday night, another shocking incident occurred outside of Nablus. The home of a Palestinian family was burned down in a savage arson attack that killed an 18-month old Ali Saad Dawabsheh and injured his parents and brother. Hebrew graffiti was sprayed nearby with the word nekamah, revenge, appearing next to a Star of David. Authorities suspect this was the work of the Price Tag gang of thugs, Jewish terrorists who attack Palestinians in the name of their ideology of a Greater Israel.
Both incidents have been strongly condemned, and rightly so, by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Yet, we brace ourselves with great concern for what may follow, particularly in response to the firebombing. Hamas and Hezbollah, backed by an increasingly confident Iran, may be looking for excuses to stir up trouble in the West Bank and beyond. What can be done?
The answer comes, in part, from the special haftarah this Shabbat. After 45 years in exile, following the destruction of the first Temple, the Jews now have an opportunity to return to their homeland. The 40th chapter of Isaiah begins Nachamu nachamu ami, yomar Eloheichem. This phrase is often mistranslated as: “Be comforted, my people, says God.” Perhaps more familiar is the King James version sung in Handl’s “Messiah:” “Comfort ye, my people.” On closer analysis, this reading is problematic. Nachamu is not a reflexive verb calling on people to comfort themselves. That would read hitnachamu. Rather, it is a transitive verb in command form: “Comfort! Comfort my people!” If that is the case, then we must ask to whom is God speaking? Commentators differ. Some say God is speaking to the prophets. Some say the priests (LXX). Some say all the nations of the world are commanded to comfort the Jewish people. Professor Shalom Paul of Hebrew University argues that God is speaking to the Divine Council, commanding the celestial beings seated there to comfort the Jews. Whatever interpretation you choose, the common denominator is that comfort is not a passive process that just happens to someone. It is an active process that one must do to bring comfort to someone else.
Yair Lapid, a centrist Knesset member, wrote an op-ed piece yesterday titled We Are at War, arguing that those who care for the survival of a vibrant Jewish State need to combat extremism. “He who burns a Palestinian baby declares war on the State of Israel. He who stabs young people at a Pride March declares war on the State of Israel.” He cites other recent examples of violence and incitement and calls extremists “natural partners of Hamas, of Hezbollah, of ISIS. They look like us but they aren’t like us. They are traitors to all that is sacred to us, traitors to the very idea on which the State of Israel was founded, traitors to Judaism.” He concludes: “We’re at war. For the future, for Zionism, for our existence. As in every one of Israel’s wars, we cannot afford to lose.” On the surface, his words are not exactly comforting. When is it ever comforting to speak of war? Yet, in the spirit of Isaiah, comfort is an active process. People of good will must be vigilant against violent extremism for the good, and ultimately the comfort, of all.
Where racism, hatred and indifference are allowed to fester, particularly towards vulnerable members of society, it is not a long road for that culture to transform into a culture of violence. I pray that this week’s events were aberrations and not a new normal for Israel. There is some reason for hope.
Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern visited the victims of the anti-gay terror attack on the gay pride parade. He called on the public to pray for the recovery of the victims and condemned the attack in the strongest terms, saying the attack was the polar opposite of everything Judaism stands for.
Furthermore, Netanyahu and leaders of his government, including Naftali Bennett, condemned the arson as an act of terror. Their task going forward will be to face down the extremists in their own camp so that this violence is not repeated.
I’ll conclude with a poignant statement released by the Masorti Movement in Israel.
“Jewish fundamentalism is neither better nor worse than any other fundamentalism. The knife, raised against the parade in the heart of Jerusalem last evening, and the match that ignited a family home in the village of Douma, near Nablus, in the early morning hours, are the despicable products of religious fanaticism. Tendentious use of verses can justify almost any wrongdoing, yet the legacy of Israel throughout all generations has always known to maintain a firm moral rule, “Do the right and the good” (Deuteronomy 6:18). Those who educate for hatred, spread evil, and call for harming innocent people are distorting Judaism, not building it. Murder, attempted murder and lust for murder have nothing to do with Jewish tradition.
We extend a comforting hand and embrace to the LGBT community that suffered a severe blow yesterday, send strength to their families, and offer prayers for the injured hospitalized in Hadassah and Shaare Zedek hospitals in Jerusalem.
We send condolences to the family Daobasa, whose infant son was burned to death last night by Jewish terrorists, and pray for the safety of other family members who are still hospitalized.
Oseh Shalom Bimromav/May God who makes peace on high,
Hu Yaase Shalom Aleinu Make peace for us,
v’al kol Yisrael/For all Israel,
v’al kol yoshvei teivel/And all who dwell on Earth.
V’imru/Let us say, Amen.”
And I’ll add: may we find the strength as a people to take meaningful action to bring comfort to our people and the world.