Having now come out the other side of Tisha b’av we are on the count down to Rosh Hashanah, which this year is early (at least feels early in accordance with the Gregorian calendar!). After mourning for the loss of our Temple and focal point of worship and sacrifice Isaiah picks up on the fact that we need to be comforted by G-d, that despite all our sins and transgressions and the punishments meted out to us down the ages, we are never to forget that God loves us, nurtures us and chastises to bring positive change in us, not merely to show Himself as just.
Yet maybe that is not the whole story. I like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; I don’t always agree with his theology but his heart for Jewish study and integrity are clear. In his incisive piece this week in the Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com) on the weekly Shabbat portion he concludes with an incident where a young Yeshiva student repeatedly has his milk stolen or ‘appropriated’ by other Yeshiva students until he labels the milk as halav akum, questionable gentile milk. The milk then remains untouched. Such ‘box ticking’ of apparent righteousness that undermines not just the spirit of Torah and Judaism but actual greater commandments should not (and Rabbi Riskin and I both agree on this one) be seen in Judaism as anything like normative practice. So how do we connect this to ‘Comfort my people’?
If the form of Judaism that creates such behaviour in the Yeshivot has misunderstood the very essence of Judaism and Jewish life (and I would argue that it has), then what other models are available that give us righteousness from HaShem and point to His comfort? I believe that we have missed something critical in our Jewish thinking: G-d understands how difficult it is to ACTUALLY live a righteous life in Him. Although we are to draw down HIS righteousness, we still are obliged to live out that in every day life. G-d understands the struggles and despair, while also rejoicing in the victories too! His comfort seen in this light is not so much aimed at consoling us after being told off and disciplined, but rather a Father sitting us on His lap (I speak with the words of men) showing us compassion in our weakness (in comparison to HIS strength).
Two men from our historical past illustrate this so well: Caleb who according to the Torah ‘had another spirit in him’ and consequently ‘truly followed G-d’, and King David, who despite his gross sin was ‘a man after my own (G-d’s) heart’. Neither man was perfect, both sinned and ‘got it wrong’, yet with the compassion of G-d seeing that each one had a spirit to truly understand what the essence of Torah, righteousness actually is, they pleased G-d and moved Him to understand them. Neither man was a ‘box ticker’. Neither man believed that life could be constrained by human conceptual constructs, even if drawn down from Torah. Both knew that G-d and His Torah righteousness had to be understood, its essence lived and breathed as something alive, as relational and real.
If we as Israel could live out that righteousness before this world, just imagine the impact we would have! Be comforted, our G-d knows us and understands us; He is compassionate.