The Seven Haftarot of Consolation
Translated by Kaeren Fish
a. Why Specifically These Prophecies?
The Tur (Orach Chaim, 428) teaches:
From [parashat] Bereishit until the seventeenth of Tammuz, the haftara follows the theme of the parasha; from then onwards, [the theme of the haftara is] according to the date and the events [related to it]: there are three [haftarot] of rebuke, then seven of consolation... The seven of consolation are "Nachamu" for parashat Va'etchanan, "Va-tomer Tzion" for parashat Ekev, "Oniya So'ara" for Re'eh, "Anokhi" for Shoftim, "Roni Akara" for Ki Tetze, "Kumi Ori" for Ki Tavo, and "Sos Asis" for Nitzavim...
In other words, the haftarot for most shabbatot of the year were selected because of the similarity between them and the parashot which they accompany, while those read from the seventeenth of Tammuz until the end of the year were chosen on the basis of their connection with the events of that period. There are three haftarot of rebuke for the period between the seventeenth of Tammuz and the ninth of Av, followed by seven of consolation for the seven shabbatot after Tisha Be-Av (from parashat Va'etchanan until parashat Nitzavim). Thus, there is no point in seeking any relation between these haftarot and the parashot which they accompany, since they were all chosen for their common theme: consolation.
Nevertheless, it is necessary for us to understand why, out of the many prophecies of consolation and redemption, it was specifically these that were chosen. Furthermore, we must inquire as to the reason for the specific order in which they are read.
Our initial theory could be that the prophecies of consolation were selected from those of the "prophet of consolation," Yishayahu, and they were established one by one for each of these weeks. This theory could have been maintained had the order of the haftarot followed the order in which they appear in Sefer Yishayahu. Although this is the case for the most part, there are instances where this order is not followed: the haftara for parashat Shoftim is from Yishayahu 51-52, while that of Re'eh – which is read prior to Shoftim – is from the second half of Chapter 54, while the first part of that chapter accompanies parashat Ki Tetze, which comes later.
b. Hierarchy and Dialogue
R. Simcha of Vitri, in his Machzor Vitri, discerns a deliberate hierarchy in the order of the haftarot. He writes:
... And the latter ones, all of which speak of consolation, are read from Tisha Be-Av until Yom Kippur, in the way that one consoles [a mourner] slowly by stages, for someone who offers consolation too close to the time of tragedy is like one who predicts the future: "Tomorrow you will be king," which the bereaved cannot believe...
Therefore, [the first haftara begins,] "Comfort you, comfort you, My people." [The people's response:] "And Zion shall say, God has abandoned me..." – although Zion is destroyed, do not say that she is abandoned. Since God has comforted her already in His mercy, He does not call for mercy again. Up until this point the prophets console her; from here onwards He consoles her. And once she has received consolation, we follow with: "Sing, O barren one," "Arise and shine," "I shall rejoice."
The structure of the consolation is built in stages, and it grows continually stronger.
A different explanation is offered by a midrash quoted by the Avudraham in his comments on the order of the parashiot and haftarot:
The Midrash suggests... that the Sages established that the first of these haftarot would be "Comfort, comfort My people" – as though God were commanding the prophets to console His nation. To this, Knesset Yisrael responds: "And Zion says, God has abandoned me" – i.e., she is not consoled by the consolation of the prophets... Thereafter, we see that the Jewish people is still "a stormy ship that will not be consoled;" it is as if the prophets once again declare before the Holy One: See, Knesset Yisrael is not appeased with our consolations. Therefore the Holy One Himself again speaks: "I, even I am your consoler," and then He says, "Rejoice, O barren one who has not given birth," and also, "Arise and shine, for your light has come." To this, Knesset Yisrael responds: "I shall surely rejoice in God" – as if to say, now I have reason to rejoice and to be joyful, "My soul will rejoice in my God for He has dressed me in garments of salvation..."
c. Connection with Exegesis?
Although, as mentioned, these haftarot were selected for their theme of consolation, there may still be some ideas common to each of them and to the parashot read on the same Shabbatot.
The following ideas arise from an initial reading, and upon deeper examination no doubt more could be found.
1) Haftara of Va'etchanan – Nachamu (40:1-26)
A few verses in this prophecy speak of the unique Oneness of God (for example, "To whom will you compare Me, that I will be compared, says the Holy One" ; see also verses 13, 17, 18), and this same idea is expressed in the famous verse from the parasha: "Shema Yisrael" – "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God – the Lord is One" (6:4).
In the Ten Commandments recorded in Va'etchanan, we find several prohibitions concerning idolatry: "You shall have no other gods before Me;" "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol" (5:7-8); "... lest you become corrupt and make for yourselves a carved idol of any image" (4:16); "Guard yourselves lest your forget the covenant of the Lord your God... and make for yourselves an idol that is the likeness of anything" (4:23). In the haftara, the prophet mocks "the idol – a craftsman casts it, and a refiner covers it with silver... he seeks a wise craftsman to make an idol that will not be moved" (19-20).
2) Haftara of Ekev – "Tzion says..." (49:14-51:3)
In the parasha we find a warning: "Guard yourselves lest your hearts be tempted... and God's anger will burn against you, and He will stop up the heavens and there sill be no rain... and you will quickly die off from upon the good land" (11:16-17). In the haftara, the prophet announces in God's name: "At My rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a desert... I clothe the heavens in black garments..." (50:2). And in the concluding verse of the haftara, the prophet says: "For God will console Tzion, He shall console all her desolate places, and He shall make her desert like Eden, and her Arava like God's garden" (51:3).
Eden, the garden of God, is none other than the primordial Gan Eden, the place where water flowed abundantly, irrigating the garden and all its vegetation. Thus, all of Eretz Yisrael – including its most arid regions – fits its description in the parasha as "a good land, a land of streams of water, fountains and depths that flow from the valleys and the mountains" (8:7).
3) Haftara of Re'eh – "O stormy afflicted one" (54:11-55:5)
Firstly, the prophet speaks of children: "And all your children will know God, and there will be great peace among your children" (54:13). In the parasha we already hear of Israel referred to as children: "You are children to the Lord your God" (14:1).
Secondly, the key to redemption – in the prophet's words – lies in acts of righteousness: "In righteousness shall you be established" (54:14). The parasha speaks at length about matters of righteousness. We are warned several times to remember the Levi, who has no portion and inheritance in the land, and to include him in the household (12:12, 12:18, 14:27, 14:29). Likewise we are told to give gifts to the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow (14:29). There is also the obligation to cancel debts at the end of seven years (15:1-3), and later on there are verses that speak of the obligation to open one's hand to one's impoverished brother and to give him "what he needs, that which he lacks" (15:8). We are also commanded as to what to give the Hebrew man- and maid-servants at the end of their period of indenture.
, the parasha promises: "And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you" (15:6). In the haftara we are told that if Israel will listen to God, then "I shall make an everlasting covenant with you, the everlasting loving promises of David. Behold, I have made him a witness to the nations, a leader and commander of nations... and nations that did not know you will run towards you" (55:3-5).
4) Haftara of Shoftim – "I, even I, am your consoler" (51:12-52:12)
The parasha deals with the institutions of leadership of the nation: judges, officers, the king, kohanim, prophets. In the haftara, too, we hear about leadership: "There is no leader for her among all the children she has borne; there is none who holds her hand of all the children she has raised" (51:18). "Their rulers yell" (52:5), "the voice of your watchmen – they have lifted their voices" (52:8).
5) Haftara of Ki Tetze – "Sing, O barren one" (54:1)
The prophet announces, "More numerous are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman" (54:1). The prophet sees before him two women – one desolate and alone, the other married. The one who is married is loved by her husband, while the desolate one is hated and abandoned. Indeed, she is "like a woman abandoned and of downcast spirit," like "the woman of one's youth whom one has despised" (6). But God promises that "with great mercy" and "with everlasting lovingkindness" He will return this "wife of His youth" to Him. The subject of a beloved wife and a despised wife is mentioned at the beginning of the parasha, and that of separating from the wife of one's youth and sending her away is dealt with further on (24:1-2).
6) Haftara of Ki Tavo – "Arise and shine" (chapter 60)
The visions contained in this prophecy of redemption can be summarized by a single verse from the parasha: "God has mandated you today to be a special nation for Him... and to make you supreme over all the nations which He has made, in praise and in name and in honor." This is a promise that the nations will recognize Israel's supremacy, a recognition that will involve the many details listed in the haftara, from verse 3 to verse 16.
7) Haftara for Nitzavim – "I shall surely rejoice in God" (61:10-63:9)
Firstly, in contrast to the curse in the parasha – a curse that will come upon the land if Israel violates the covenant – "brimstone and salt and burning in all the land; it shall not be sown, nor shall it bear produce, nor shall any grass grow in it" (29:22), at the time of the redemption a blessing will come upon the land: "and your land will no more be called 'desolate'..." (62:4).
Secondly, an important principle regarding redemption and repentance and the special connection between the Holy One and His nation arises from the text of this parasha and its interpretation. The Torah promises: if you will "return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice" (30:2), then "God will BRING BACK your captivity and have mercy on you, and He will RETURN and gather you from all the nations where the Lord your God scattered you" (30:3). Rashi, quoting R. Shimon Bar Yohai (Megilla 29a), comments: "The text should have read, 'He will RETURN your captivity.' Our Sages learned from this that the Shekhina remains with Israel, as it were, in the distress of their exile, and when they are redeemed He brings redemption to Himself, for He will return with them."
This principle is echoed in the closing verse of the haftara: "In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and His pity He redeemed them" (63:9). (The Ibn Ezra explains how the "keri u-ketiv" – the traditional reading of the verse which differs slightly from the written text – reflects how God Himself, as it were, is afflicted, and therefore He hastens to deliver them.)
This covenant of love and identity of destiny, as it were, is what ensures the ultimate redemption, and it is a most worthy conclusion to the series of prophecies of consolation.