Va’etchanan

Texts and beliefs By Matt Plen 16th Aug 2019

This week’s parashah and haftarah stand in stark contrast to each other.  

The Torah text centres on the themes of law, reward and punishment. The Israelite nation is party to a covenant with God. If we’re faithful and keep God’s rules, we prosper. If we betray God and disobey the law – we will be wiped out. This message repeats itself again and again within our text and  throughout the Bible, rabbinic literature and the liturgy. It has shaped the way Jews have understood themselves and their history ever since. When disaster strikes – the destruction of the Temple, the Crusades, the pogroms – many Jews’ first reaction has been to understand this from within the covenant. What have we done wrong? Why is God punishing us? This is the core message of the ‘haftarot of admonition’ read over the last three weeks in the run-up to Tisha B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the Temple. 

This message is not an easy one to accept. Ever since Job denied that his sufferings could be explained as a just punishment, people have resisted the idea that God’s hand can be discerned in every misfortune. And since the Holocaust, the traditional theology simply no longer makes sense. Twentieth-century Jewish thinkers have argued that the Shoah represents a breaking of the covenant (Yitz Greenberg) or an ‘eclipse of God’ (Martin Buber). We are unable to think of the murder of millions as just deserts for their behaviour. 

But if we can no longer understand God as the arbiter of justice, the source of reward and punishment, how are we supposed to relate to the divine? One answer is in this week’s haftarah. This week is known as Shabbat Nahamu – ‘Be comforted’ – from the opening words of the haftarah, the first of the three haftarot of consolation. Writing during the Babylonian exile, the prophet Isaiah imagines God’s messengers speaking tenderly to the city, comforting her after the destruction.  

Read together, our parashah and haftarah make for uncomfortable reading. What would we think of a parent who repeatedly alternated between punishing bad behaviour using brutal violence and then offering comfort to the crying child? But a cycle of abuse between God and Israel is not the only way to understand our texts. Instead, they can be read as two distinct, competing conceptions of God. 

Alongside its message of consolation, our haftarah conveys God’s infinite, unfathomable grandeur. This evokes the book of Job and implies that we should not seek reasons why good people suffer, but rather accept that God is beyond our understanding. God is not primarily the source of reward and punishment or the reason for suffering. Instead, in a random, amoral universe, God becomes the one we turn to for comfort when, inevitably, we do suffer.  

The universe, in this reading, is threaded through with both cruelty and empathy. Our job is to negotiate them, together. In the words of the poet Yehuda Amichai (from his poem ‘Jerusalem, 1967’): 

Jerusalem stone is the only stone that can 

feel pain. It has a network of nerves. 

From time to time Jerusalem crowds into  

mass protests like the tower of Babel. 

But with huge clubs God-the-Police beats her 

down: houses are razed, walls flattened, 

and afterward the city disperses, muttering 

prayers of complaint and sporadic screams from churches 

and synagogues and loud-moaning mosques. 

Each to his own place. 

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism and a member of Assif at New North London Synagogue. 

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