The summer cycle of scriptural readings revolves around two sets of text. The first is the weekly cycle of readings which progresses through the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. The second is the ten week cycle of haftarot, or supplementary readings, selected from the writings found in the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, which orbit around the fast day of Tisha B’Av.
Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, as well as other historical oppressions of the Jewish people which our tradition has connected with the ninth day of Av. For the three weeks prior to Tisha B’Av, the haftara readings deal with prophetic denunciation of the sins of the Jewish people, as first Jeremiah and then Isaiah condemn the transgressions of the Covenant. In particular, Jeremiah’s prophecies of the imminent destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem predict with frightening accuracy the fate that in fact befell the Jewish people in 586 BCE.
This Shabbat, which comes immediately after Tisha B’Av, is known as Shabbat Nahamu, after the opening words of the haftara: “Nahamu, nahamu ami — give comfort to My people”. (Isaiah 40:1) There are seven Shabbatot, including this one, between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShana; each of them features a selection from Isaiah which speaks of the themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and repentance.
Contemporary scholars identify the unnamed prophet whose words are recorded in the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66, as “Deutero-Isaiah”, or “the second Isaiah”, because his prophecies of consolation place him in Babylonia following the destruction of the Temple. (Some scholars even assign Isaiah chapters 56-66 to a so-called “third Isaiah”.) The “real” prophet Isaiah, whose words are recorded in Isaiah chapters 1-39, lived in Judea around 750-700 BCE.
Tisha B’Av, traditionally marked by a sunset-to-sunset fast, the chanting of the biblical book of Lamentations, and other rituals associated with mourning, is no longer widely observed. Perhaps this is because it falls in the summer, when distractions of vacation and leisure are highest; or perhaps it is due to the lachrymose nature of the day; or perhaps it reflects the vast historical distance from the events it commemorates.
Whatever the reason, modern Jews rarely resonate to Tisha B’Av; if they do respond to the call for communal mourning, it is more likely to happen on or around Yom HaShoa, Holocaust commemoration day, which comes in the spring. For many modern Jews, the Holocaust evokes the emotional connection which the destruction of the Temples evoked for our ancestors.
Curiously, but significantly, our response to the Holocaust has borrowed little from Tisha B’Av; while some Jews have transferred the observances of Tisha B’Av to Yom HaShoa (fasting, mourning, abstaining from celebrations, etc.), no modern Jewish movement has formally suggested doing so.
More importantly, we have not borrowed the theological response to destruction and calamity found in the seven haftarot of consolation. For those Jews living in ancient Babylonia after the destruction of Jerusalem, the words of Deutero-Isaiah were both comforting and explanatory: “her iniquity is expiated…you were only sold off for your sins…you have drunk from the Lord’s hand the cup of His wrath…”.
But coupled with the anticipation of forgiveness and the coming of a restoration to Judea was a theology whereby the destruction of the Temples was deemed as punishment for violation of the covenantal terms of the Torah. This viewpoint, implicit in the Book of Lamentations, was later embodied in the prayer “Umipnei Chata’aynu”, “For our sins we were punished and exiled…”, which survives in traditional Jewish liturgy to our own day.
Very few modern Jews could accept the application of this theology to the Holocaust; the notion that European Jewry was exterminated as punishment for sin is justifiably rejected. In this case, what worked for our ancestors no longer works for us, and among the many tasks of modern Judaism is the fashioning of an appropriate theological response to the Holocaust.
Notwithstanding our distancing from the dated theology of destruction, the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShana remain an important opportunity for preparation. Despite the difficulties we might encounter with a literal application of the words of Deutero-Isaiah, his motifs of repentance and reconciliation are as important to moderns as they were to our ancestors as we anticipate the beginning of the New Year.
Too many modern Jews miss the opportunity to prepare for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur; we rush home from work or school, hastily down a festival meal, and run off to synagogue to begin the holiday. As in most things of value, what we get out is proportionate to what we put in; what we accomplish in preparation for the High Holy Days yields increased meaning in their observance.
Tisha B’Av represents those moments when terrible experiences have severed us from God and from other people; when the breach seems so wide that we cannot imagine a time when it will be healed. We feel alone, despondent, rejected.
It is at just such moments that we most need to turn to our religious sources for hope; even if we cannot accept the words in their literal sense, the symbolic message is sustaining: “Nahamu, nahamu ami – give comfort to My people!” To offer comfort is to suggest consolation; to offer hope is to suggest reconciliation; to offer a vision of a future is to suggest return.
Thus the Jewish summer cycle represents a sort of bell graph: for three weeks, the emotional curve ascends, reaching its’ peak on Tisha B’Av; it then descends gradually and gracefully over a period of seven weeks and comes to rest on Rosh HaShana. Tragedy and trauma strike suddenly; coming to terms takes longer.
The seven haftara readings of comfort, beginning this week, chart a path towards reconciliation which culminates appropriately with the fall season of teshuvah, or turning/growing in the direction of God. These seven weeks are really the beginning of the New Year, for they are the weeks in which, with increasing assurance, we are reminded by Deutero-Isaiah: ” Fear not, for I am with you; Be not frightened, for I am your God; I strengthen you and I help you”.