What is Shabbat Nachamu?

"The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl" by Victor Raphael
“The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl” a meditation on Isaiah 40:1 by Victor Raphael

We’ve been through a lot in the past few weeks, haven’t we? This year, it wasn’t just in the liturgy and the calendar: it’s been a hard time for Israel, for a lot of people in the Middle East, and for the world. So this week, I will likely listen with tears in my eyes when I hear the familiar words of Isaiah: Comfort, comfort, My people!

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu.” It takes this name from the beginning of the Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) this week, Isaiah 40:1: Nachamu, nachamu ami! [Comfort, comfort, My people!] After the terror of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish People turn to God and to one another for comfort.

There’s a lot of midrash on this passage: who is comforting, who is comforted, and how? The rabbis speculate whether it means comfort as in “There, there” or comfort as in “strengthen.” There is even a midrash that suggests that it is God who needs comforting, after the terrors of Tisha B’Av!

The problem of suffering has puzzled human beings forever. Often suffering comes to those who have done nothing wrong. Sometimes wicked people thrive. How shall we make sense of it all?

I read this line in my own way. I think Isaiah is telling us that to get comfort, we need to give comfort. There is much undeserved suffering in the world, and I am not qualified to judge who “deserves” or does not. What I know is that a lot of us are hurting. This Shabbat, when we feel we need comfort, may each of us reach out to someone else and say, “Take heart.”

Shabbat shalom.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

10 thoughts on “What is Shabbat Nachamu?”

  1. Dear Rabbi Ruth,

    Actually, I feel very bad about the Israeli response to Hamas. Hamas, is, indeed a real problem, but I want to hear something along the lines of how this problem could be handled without bombing civilian areas.

    My ideas would be (1) ask for UN intervention, to guard the borders, and clean out the tunnels, (2) reopen the borders, in exchange for Hamas laying down and destroying its weapons weapons (3) releasing all prisoners of war on Israel’s part and (5) putting the Gaza Strip under UN management. Blockading the Gaza Strip so there are no supplies coming in, or jobs, will only make Hamas look like the alternative to the ensuing suffering.

    I just can’t support F-14’s bombing civilian areas, and I am not happy to know that we paid for them

    I just can’t support Israel when I think its governmental policies are mean and short sighted.

    Thank you for listening.

    Anne Ireland

    1. Anne, I absolutely agree with you that the bombing of civilian areas is sickening. Actually, I think the vast majority of Israelis would agree with you on that. They have had difficulty coming up with an alternative that works.

      Israel has many reasons to mistrust the UN, beginning with its very beginning: five Arab armies (trained and equipped by European nations during WWII) attacked Israel and the UN just stood by and watched. The reasons have only multiplied since then, partly due to the fact that the UN is deeply dependent on Arab oil money. I know, I grew up thinking of the UN as “good guys” but sometimes there is a bias. It’s a human institution.

      Personally while I am horrified by civilian losses in this war, I cannot get past the fact that half of the Jews in the world – my fellow Jews – have been the recipients of thousands of bombs. None of that got the least concern from the rest of the world until they began military action to make the bombs stop. To me, that is a big part of the problem, the anti-Semitism that says that it is OK to bomb Israelis, and not OK for Israelis to hit back.

      The demilitarization of Gaza would be a step in the right direction. As for the war prisoners – maybe. Often what Hamas calls “war prisoners” are people who planned and carried out bombings of Israeli civilians.

      It’s a terrible, terrible time, I agree. Can we agree that this has been a rough week for everyone?

  2. I think it highly unlikely that Hamas would lay down and destroy their weapons…..and the UN, well, they are pretty toothless….

    1. Diplomatic solutions require both sides to do things they don’t like. As long as Hamas has the rest of the world cheering it on, I am not much of an optimist about this, myself.

  3. Rabbi Adar, thank you for an extremely informative, well explained piece on what is an awful situation. A rough week, indeed.

  4. this has been a rough month. all I can think of are the words oseh shalom aleinu. I had hoped the UN could resolve this by acting as peacekeepers. I do not think any agreement will succeed, if Hamas does not disarm, and have its weapons dumps destroyed, and their destruction verified by international inspectors. At this point, I am fresh out of ideas.

  5. Rabbi Ruth,

    I feel very bad about this also, because the Israelis I have met so far are decent people. I am so frustrated, because I can not imagine them wanting civilians hurt. the two prayer services at Chochmat HaLev this past month were led by an Israeli and a Palestinian musician. Something is missing here, because their desire to resolve this conflict does not seem to penetrate the leaders of Hamas, or the leaders of the Israeli government.
    Neither side is getting what they need, whether its safety, or a right to earn a decent living. I know Hamas has managed the Gaza strip, and while they have created many martyrs, they have done little to improve the lives of their constituents. So, I have spoken, and I will step off the stage, now.

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