When we pick up a book, glancing through it to determine whether we would like to spend the time reading it, we may look over the table of contents as well as the chapter headings or introductions. However, it is the text itself that we must read and delve into in order to truly understand the heart of the book and the author(s) goal. Therefore, it is worthy to note that the chapter and verse designations in the Bible are not in the original texts but are a much later addition. A cursory online search shows an agreement that the current chapter and verse designations in the Christian translations of the Bible originated with Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury around 1227, and were first used in the Wycliffe English Bible in 1382. The Tanakh has a few deviations from this pattern, possibly due to the work of Rabbi Nathan in 1448.
Why this history lesson you might ask? Often when we read the Scriptures, we subconsciously accept the stop-and-go pattern of the chapter breaks, verses and even sub-headings. While these are useful tools in locating and remembering sections of Scripture, they were not part of the original inspired work of the Ruach set down by men of old, and therefore sometimes misleading.
With this in mind, let’s turn to the fourth of the seven Haftarot of Consolation, which follow the remembrances of Tisha b’Av and culminate on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. This week’s reading, Isaiah 51:12 through 52:12, continues the unbroken flow of HaShem’s encouragement through the prophet Isaiah that began four weeks ago with Shabbat Nachamu, (Isaiah 40:1–26). This week’s passage opens with the repeated emphasis by the Lord that He alone comforts Israel. “I, I am the One who comforts you. Who are you that you should fear man?” (Isaiah 51:12). These words may well have inspired Rav Shaul’s words of comfort to the believers in Rome as he wrote, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31b).
Exterior circumstances should not be our main focus, no matter how difficult they are, or whether they be problems of our own making or the simple reality of living in world groaning for the realisation of tikkun olam. Our main focus should be on Him who provides the comfort, as He is the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrew 12:2), especially as He promised through the prophet Jeremiah: “‘For I know the plans that I have in mind for you,’ declares ADONAI, ‘plans for shalom and not calamity—to give you a future and a hope’” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Later in the Haftarah, Israel, as well as we ourselves, are encouraged, possibly even commanded, to awaken ourselves to the necessity of focusing on the Lord and not the circumstances. First the Lord says,
Awake, awake! Stand up, Jerusalem! From ADONAI’s hand you have drunk the cup of His fury, the chalice of reeling that you have drained to the dregs. (Isa 51:17)
Yes, it was Israel’s fault that the discipline had come, and she was chastised like an errant child. By not choosing life (Deuteronomy 30:19), Israel received the promised consequence. But the consequence was not the final state of things. Discipline is performed not to bring death and destruction, but to bring change, growth, repentance and redemption. Isaiah’s encouragement continues,
Awake, awake! Clothe yourself in your strength, Zion! Clothe yourself in beautiful garments, Jerusalem, the holy city, for the uncircumcised and the unclean will never invade you again. (Isaiah 52:1)
It is important to realize that along with words of consolation, Israel is encouraged, maybe even commanded, to wake up, to stand up, and even to strengthen themselves. The Lord comforts and restores after He disciplines, but it is Israel’s responsibility to get up, to stop wallowing in the mud of depression and self-pity, and to walk in the comfort and provision of her LORD. Remember, the LORD delivered Israel from Egyptian oppression and slavery, but they had to get up and walk out on their own. Had they sat in their homes instead of following Moshe out of Egypt, who knows how the story might have ended? Rav Shaul exhorted the believers at Philippi to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For the One working in you is God—both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13). It would appear that both in the Tanakh and in the Apostolic Writings, we have a responsibility to work with HaShem for our betterment, for tikkun olam; we are not expected nor even allowed just to sit on our tuchuses waiting for things to happen.
The 16th century kabbalist, Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, possibly summarized this Haftarah in his poem, Lecha Dodi, which is sung on Friday evening welcoming the entrance of the Shabbat.
Wake up, wake up,
Your light has come, rise and shine.
Awaken, awaken; sing a melody,
The glory of God to be revealed upon thee.
As we read this Haftarah of Consolation, could there be any greater consolation than being encouraged to enter into the rest provided by our God?
In closing, I want to share just a little about the month of Elul which we entered last Shabbat. Within Judaism, the month of Elul is a time of repentance in preparation for the High Holidays in the month of Tishrei. Beginning in Elul, we prepare our hearts to acknowledge Creation and ADONAI‘s sovereignty over it at Rosh Hashanah. Ten days later, we will stand, together as a people, recognizing our frailty and short-comings, acknowledging our need for forgiveness and restoration both to ADONAI as well as to our fellow man. Remember the words of Yeshua when He taught,
Therefore, if you are presenting your offering upon the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23-24)
It has been suggested that Elul (אלול, alef lamed, vav lamed) is an acronym of Song of Songs 6:3 “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” As we spend time in introspection this month, we can rest assured that we are loved by ADONAI, and that His desire for us is for our good.