Comforting the afflicted is the duty of us all

Rabbi Lane Steinger

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

“To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” 

I was in a rabbinical school class when I first heard this adage. The saying was proffered by a professor as a working definition of Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible — or TaNaK (an acronym for the Bible’s three components: Torah, Nevi’im [Prophets] and Ketuvim [Writings]).

Upon further review, I learned from my own research outside the classroom that “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” originated at the turn of the 20th  century with American humorist Finley Peter Dunne. In one of his syndicated newspaper columns, Dunne was describing the duties of journalism and the press. In the mid-1940s, a minister in western Pennsylvania expropriated Dunne’s catchphrase to depict religion, in general, and religious institutions and clergy, specifically. 

By the time I was a rabbinic student, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” was being quoted not only in reference to Hebrew Prophecy, but also by some to define the rabbinate.

During the annual 2卦-month period from the partial fast of Shivah Asar B’Tammuz, the 17th Day of Tammuz, which recalls the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem leading to the destruction of the Temple, to Rosh Hashana, our Shabbat Haftarah readings, the lections from the Prophets, reflect the prophetic propensity to chasten or to comfort. 

For three Sabbaths beginning with the one after the 17th of Tammuz and ending with the one before Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, the Haftarot are known as “d’puranuta-of Rebuke.” The full fast of Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as other tragic events in Jewish history, such as the expulsion from Spain that took effect on the Ninth of Av.

Starting with the Sabbath this week, the next seven Haftarot are called Shiv’a d’nechamata, the “Seven [Prophetic Readings] of Consolation.”

Most Shabbatot are named after the Torah portion for the week, and the Haftarah usually has some thematic connection to the Parashah. However, there are exceptions. 

This week’s Sabbath is titled Shabbat Nahamu, the Sabbath of Comfort. (Last week, we had Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Vision.) The name Shabbat Nahamucomes from the opening words of the Haftarah, Isaiah 40:1-26: Nahamu, nahamu ’ami, yomar eloheykhem, “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.” 

This reading, like the nine others from right after the 17th of Tammuz to just before the New Year, does not link to motifs in the Parashah. Not that this week’s Torah Portion, Va’etchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11, isn’t important. On the contrary, Va’etchanan is replete with profound teachings and textual treasures. It contains, among other things, another version of aseret ha-dibrot,  the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:1-18), and Shema’ Yisrael, adonay eloheynu, adonay ehad, “Listen, Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone” (6:4), as well as the first paragraph of the liturgical Shema’ (6:4-9), and the initial words of the anthem V’zot Hatorah, “This is the Teaching” (4:44), sung while the open Sacred Scroll is displayed during Hagbahah, the lifting of the Sefer Torah in the synagogue service.

Nahamu, nahamu ami yomar eloheykhem; Dabru al-lev yerushalayim, “Comfort, comfort My People, says your God; speak to the heart of Jerusalem.” 

M’tzudat David (Rabbi David Altschuler, 18th century Prague) comments: “Your God says to the Prophets, ‘Comfort My people,’ and the repetition of the word is for emphasis.” Rabbi Altschuler understands the stressed, plural imperative to be addressed to God’s messengers, the Prophets. As we know from their prophecies, there surely were times when messages of admonition and chastisement were called for, but there also were times when words of consolation and comfort were required.

And so it is to this day. Whenever people are anxious, hurting and in pain, they need encouragement, solace and reassurance. That this should be so in “normal” times is self evident. How much more is it the case nowadays when the constraints and confusion caused by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 have upended our world and so very many of our lives.

“To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” and the divine directive to “comfort, comfort My people; Speak to the heart” apply not just to God’s messengers, the Prophets, but much more broadly. They are responsibilities for me and other rabbis and cantors, and for clergy of other religions. 

Nor is comforting solely for clergy or being comforted only for Jews. They are for all of us and for all peoples. They are fitting now — perhaps especially now — and they are always appropriate when needed.  Shabbat Shalom! 

Lane Steinger is Rabbi Emeritus at Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.