Parashat Va-ethannan

Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11

July 24, 2010 / 13 Av 5770

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Mychal B. Springer, director of the Center for Pastoral Education and the Helen Fried Kirshblum Goldstein Chair in Professional and Pastoral Skills, JTS.

The dreaded has happened. The inconceivable has come to pass. The Temple has been destroyed. Our center is no more. Our sense of safety is shattered. The world is no longer familiar. We are in a place of disorientation. So this Shabbat we begin the hard work of consolation: Nachamu, nachamu ami ("Comfort, oh, comfort My people, Says your God" [Isa. 40:1]). These are the opening words of this week's haftarah portion. Each week, for seven weeks, we will receive another haftarah of consolation, until we reach Rosh Hashanah. The number seven conveys completeness, like the seven days of the week. Like the seven days of shiv'ah. Consolation cannot happen in one brief moment. It is a process, a journey. How is it that consolation does happen?

There are three verses in the haftarah that stand out as offering great insight into the dynamics of consolation:

A voice rings out: "Proclaim!"
Another asks, "What shall I proclaim?"
"All flesh is grass,
All its goodness like flowers of the field:
Grass withers, flowers fade
When the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Indeed man is but grass:
Grass withers, flowers fade—
But the word of our God is always fulfilled!" (Isa. 40:6-8)

These verses contain a dialogue between two voices. They can be understood as the voices of the Prophet and God, the voices of two angels, the voices of two people, or the conflicting voices inside a single individual.

One voice says "Proclaim!" (K'ra!). The word "proclaim" conveys that someone has a truth to tell. So it could be that the first voice speaks from a place of confidence, certain of the consolation contained inside the understanding that we are grass that withers, but God's word is forever. How is this consoling? The acknowledgement that we are but grass, that life is fleeting, captures the experience of loss for many of us. I had something or someone, and now I am left bereft. It wasn't long enough, it wasn't permanent enough, and now he or she or the object of my grief is gone. The truth that life is fleeting consoles because it is true. It is not trying to cajole anyone into saying it's all right. It does not offer theories of just rewards and punishment. It does not attribute blame or ask for repentance. It simply captures the nature of being alive. It says: do not seek permanence where it does not exist. Look into the reality of this world and know that we will all be cut short because life is a short process.

But this is not a voice that says it has no meaning. The meaning derives from our being grounded in the reality of God, the Eternal One. The verses end with Ud'var eloheinu yakum l'olam ("But the word of our God is always fulfilled"). The word l'olam also means "forever." When we juxtapose the brevity of the existence of the grass that withers with the forever-ness of God, we can be consoled with the understanding that there is permanence in this world. We can access it when we go beyond ourselves and understand ourselves as being grounded in the Eternal One. The Eternal One has a word, d'var Elohim, which is the way that we gain access to this eternity. The Ten Commandments (aseret ha dibrot), the ten words/utterances in this week's Torah Portion, standing in for all of Torah, can be understood as our pathway to eternity. Therein lies the consolation. Psalm 90, which also has imagery of human life being like grass, asks God to "teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart." Awareness of our limitations can propel us into this wisdom.

In this initial scenario, it becomes interesting to see that the second voice seems unaware of the basis of the proclamation. The second voice simply says: "What shall I proclaim?" How do we understand the significance of that second voice? Perhaps both voices are aware of the reality of all flesh being like grass, but perhaps the second voice does not see how the fleeting nature of human existence—even with an acknowledgement of our ability to access eternity through God's word—is a source of comfort, a cause for proclamation. In our day, there are many people who grapple with faith and yearn for concrete assurances of meaning. It can be painful to be told that consolation rests in a pathway that feels impossible to embrace. So let's look at a second rendering of our verses' dialogue.

The Hebrew word k'ra can also mean "cry out." In a second scenario, the first voice says: "Cry out! Resist! Object to the reality of all creatures! How can it be that all flesh is grass?" Here the road to consolation is bumpier. While the second voice, restricted to the end of the dialogue alone, may convey its confidence in the possibilities that are available through God's word, the first voice offers poignant push back. Somehow, inside the text, there is room for that cry. Read this way, the voice says: look at our reality! Look at the pain caused by our fleeting nature! We are but grass, sprouting up one moment and withering the next!

So how is that consoling? Here the consolation comes not from a solution but from the process of crying out and being heard. In this scenario, the presence of a second voice, able to hear the cry of the first, makes consolation possible. The first voice says: I cry out with pain, I voice my protest. The second voice responds: I have heard your protest and I affirm that this life is as painfully fleeting as you say.

God, too, is available to respond to you, because God's word is always available. In this sense, God's davar, God's word, has a reality and a power that transforms our existence. We could even say that that transformation does not depend on faith in a classical way. It begins in the process of the crying out, with the hope that we will be heard. But even the process of crying out and not experiencing a response—or not yet—sets the process of consolation in motion.

The presence of multiple realities in these verses affirms to us that the road to consolation has multiple pathways. When one path feels unmanageable, there is another, because no matter how much devastation we have experienced, the promise is that consolation is possible.

I would like to thank Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky for sharing some of her thoughts on God's davar with me, since they brought me to a new awareness of how God's davar may be functioning in these verses.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.