As was then today too we absolutely need the comforting words of the prophet Isiah on this Shabbat also known as Shabbat Nakhmu, the Shabbat that begins a sequence of seven prophecies that suggest hope and provide comfort. “‘Comfort, O comfort My people,’ says your God. ‘Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.’” These are not only words of comfort but also a hidden message of reproof. For the sin, the iniquity, the punishment far exceeds the deed. When the prophet calls, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley’”. There is criticism hidden here too. It was unnecessary to pave crooked roads, uncalled for to pile up heaps, needless to dig holes and create difficulties. The prophet says that there is an opportunity for change but hurdles must be moved aside.
On this Shabbat Moses stands before the people and explains, “I also pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, ‘O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as Yours? Let me, I pray, cross over and see the fair land that is beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’” In Hebrew there is use of the root ע.ב.ר. (to pass) and Moses describes God’s response that in a sense says that God had passed upon him for the benefit of the People and is warned, “Enough! Speak to Me no more of this matter.” The maximum he receives is this, “Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes to the west and north and south and east, and see it with your eyes, for you shall not cross over this Jordan.” To show that which is going to happen, the transfer of leadership Moses is further ordered to “charge Joshua and encourage him and strengthen him, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he will give them as an inheritance the land which you will see.” Moses does not respond like many other by complaining about how he was robbed of a God given right. He grasps the essence of that time where a leader ceases to be the beacon for his people and becomes an obstacle. He comprehends, albeit with some difficulty, that it is time for him to step down for history’s sake. And history, it does have a tendency to remember those who know how to do it.
It was just yesterday that the remembrance day of the 9th day of Av took place. It is a grim memory that cuts through generations of destruction, murder, killing, hate and fury. Some of it was directed at us by others outside of our People, and some, as tough as it may be to admit, came from within the nation itself. The difficulty of accepting the other when there are differences of opinion. In particular when there are differences of opinion. Especially when the differences are deep and a chasm seems to lay between us. It is by far easier to curse, to use obscene language, to reach for a stick, to knife, to break a glass bottle on a head, or crush a neck. When Isiah calls for comfort, “every mountain and hill be made low; … let the rough ground become a plain, … the rugged terrain a broad valley” there is a purpose to it, “Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Yes, all people will be able to see it together, not by forcing themselves on the others but rather because the plains allow them to look way out into the horizon, further than they could ever see when all the obstacles where before them.
It is certainly not easy for a leader to understand that her or his time has come, that their ability to serve the cause of their nation has passed. Moses found that difficult too but eventually made peace with the idea. He fundamentally comprehends that the fact that he cannot continue benefits his people, and it is the people who are more important than any leader that they may have. Therefore it is not a wonder that we see so many demonstrations these days. The prophet Isiah says that better than I, “Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news, Lift up your voice mightily, O Jerusalem, bearer of good news; Lift it up, do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” He continues, “Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, Or as His counselor has informed Him? With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge And informed Him of the way of understanding?”
We are leaving behind us The Three Weeks of sorrow but they will be back in just less than a year and we shall study once more the lessons from times bygone and their meaning to our present and future. We have to do so wisely and skillfully, with love and compassion, also to those who are on the sidelines of society, and especially with an extended hand for peace as a default. We can always revert to making the plains crooked again.
Shabbat Shalom and wishes for good health to all.
Reuven Marko, 31 July 2020, 11 Av, 5780