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The First Haftarah of Consolation: The System Print E-mail

HaftarotIsaiah 40:1-26 “Comfort, comfort My People.” (40:1) The Midrash often applies Halacha to God’s actions. It is interesting to note how the Seven Haftarot of Consolation correspond to the Laws of Comforting Mourners.

These seven weeks take us from the devastation and destruction of Tisha B’Av to the promise of unlimited potential of Rosh Hashana. We can use these seven Haftarot to guide us in preparing for the New Year.

Maimonides teaches, (Laws of Mourning, Chapter 13): How should we comfort the mourners? After they bury the dead the mourners gather, and they stand on the side of the cemetery, and all of those that were busy escorting the dead, and honoring the deceased, now switch roles from being those that were honoring the deceased to being those that will comfort the living.

They make rows, one row, followed by another and then another, all the way around the mourners. And all the comforters go the mourner, one by one, and they say to him,  “Be comforted from heaven.”  The next person comes, “Be comforted from heaven.” Be comforted from heaven, over and over. How many times can you listen to it without going insane?

It is so systematic; it is so structured. There is no room for spontaneity. You are not supposed to say anything. So picture, if you will, what happens Halachically with mourning.

The first stage of mourning, begins at the time of death until the funeral, and is called Aninut. During the period of Aninut, the mourner is not allowed to say Shema, nor wrap tefillin, to make a bracha, to bench, to say Shmone Esrei, or, to perform any positive commandment.

The mourner is not allowed to perform any of these positive actions because there is no system and no structure to his world. His world has just been turned upside-down. Nothing makes sense anymore. His life has been changed. He is running around like a wild man, besides having to make all the practical preparations for the funeral and writing eulogies and everything and who should speak and who should not speak and which funeral home and cemetery and how do I take care of this and sit Shiva and all of the different things. He is running around, until he is so filled with rage that what is he told to do?
Tear your clothes!

Everything is insane. There is no system, no structure; the world is topsy-turvy.

What happens when Shiva is over and then, all of the sudden, people stop coming. Are we saying, “Now your world is back to normal? You do not need visitors anymore, you do not need anyone to comfort you, and everything is fine”?

The Shiva ends and the mourner returns to work and he sees a co-worker who mentions,  “Oh I have not seen you in a while, where have you been?”
“Well my father died.”
“Oh, I am really sorry. Can you take care of this problem for me?”
Life goes on.

“What are you some kind of idiot? Do you not understand you are acting like the world is the way it always was? Don’t you understand my father died? How could you dare say that everything is the same? What is the matter with you? The world is not the same.”

Nothing makes sense anymore.

The very first stage of comfort has to be that there is a system. As much as you hate to hear it, there is structure. This is part of the system. We do it in an even better way. We form two rows because the mourner has been running around like a chicken without a head. He feels that there is no system and there is no direction and no structure, so we hold him in. We direct him. And we say to you, “We are going to hold you up and bring you back into this system and the structure of life.”

Isaiah speaks to a generation that has seen the Beit Hamikdash destroyed. The Beit Hamikdash affected every aspect of their lives. If you take a nation and you destroy their homes, if you take a nation and you destroy their homeland entirely, smash it and bash it and destroy it, there is no structure in their life. So the very first thing that God offers through Isaiah is systematic platitudes.

God is doing for us exactly what we do for a mourner: NaChamu NaChamu, you may hate to hear it, but it is what you need to hear: that there is a system and a structure and there are natural things that people do. And there still can be some sense of system and structure to your life. That is the opening verse of NaChamu NaChamu.

When you hear after the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the exile from Israel, that there is a system, you wonder: where is the system? I do not understand the system.

God responds: Who is the one who instructed me when I created the world? Were you there? Were you the one who taught me how to do it? Were you there when I created the world? Were you there when I laid out the sea? Do you understand the system? You have to understand that the system is beyond your comprehension.

So we are having the introduction of the idea of the system and the idea that we have to understand that the system goes beyond us. And by doing this, Isaiah now takes us into a different dimension. Because we are no longer focused only on those things that we can comprehend and those things that we can understand and experience. But remember one of the things about Nechama is that it has to be something beyond teva, the course of nature. This is the introduction of the idea of hope.

If you were to decide on a theme for the first of the seven Haftarot, you would call it system, with all the implications of system
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