Day Eighteen: 5 Av
Speak Tenderly to Jerusalem
In a well-known haftara from Isaiah 40, the prophet utters the words that Handel turned to song: “Comfort, oh comfort My people…” (Isaiah 40:1). The verse continues with an instruction of what to say, but first specifies how to say it. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and declare to her that her time of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated.” Harsh words and harsher realities must be balanced by love. The expression “dibru al lev Yerushalayim” – speak tenderly, or speak to the heart, of Jerusalem – asks us to imagine a conversation between an incorporeal being and a city.
Tenderness is a difficult term to define. In the dictionary it is described as soft, delicate, fragile, easily broken, thin, fine and slender. After all the cruel or indifferent exchanges, a conversation of reconciliation begins with tenderness, the recognition that both parties are fragile and can, at any moment, be broken. If Zion is a disconsolate woman, a neglected orphan, a trampled maiden, then speak to her broken heart and bring her solace. According to Rashi, tenderness means something very specific: namely, that Jerusalem is no longer a servant to foreign nations. Other commentators understand that Jerusalem’s divine punishment finally ended. These commentaries stress an outcome rather than a process. Tenderness is not marked by how you say something but rather by the relief that you generate by what you say.
God tells Isaiah to speak tenderly. This is not a solution; it is a method. Tenderly, Isaiah tells his people that there is a path through the chaos: “A voice rings out: ‘Clear in the desert a road for the Lord! Level in the wilderness a highway for our God!” (ibid. 40:3). The image Isaiah conjures is one of magical realism. It is realistic because the desert is a place of danger and unpredictability. It mirrors tragedy in its waste and desolation. Yet it is incongruous to imagine a road through the wilderness. Natural landscapes of windblown sand, rugged dunes and isolated mountains cannot sustain the man-made infrastructure of a road. But the message is unmistakable: there is a clearing through the pain.
Isaiah provides the antidote to Zion’s suffering. He proclaims in loud bursts the beauty of Zion and the goodness of the world. In this haftara, read right after Tisha B’Av, the verses become shorter, punchier; the images are brighter and filled with light and love.
Ascend a lofty mountain
O herald of joy to Zion
Raise your voice with power
O herald of joy to Jerusalem. (Ibid. 40:9)
What consolation does the prophet muster that could stir hope in the shattered lives of those who lived through calamities? Isaiah does not promise instant improvement. One of the underlying motifs of the chapter is man’s mortality – hardly a comforting theme: “All flesh is grass, all its goodness like flowers of the field. Grass withers, flowers fade…” (ibid. 40:6–7). How can man’s mortality become a source of renewed strength?
Isaiah compares that which is fleeting with that which lasts forever: “Grass withers, flowers fade – but the word of our God is always fulfilled” (ibid. 40:7–8). The prophet asks mortal individuals to attach themselves to that which is enduring. Consolation begins when we start to value that which ultimately matters.
The first step of consolation is not a tangible solution. It is hope. Before change, there is hope. Solutions are usually rational steps that signal progress. Hope is never rational. As Elie Wiesel once said, “Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot live without hope.”44From Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, as cited in Sarah Houghton, Elie Wiesel: A Holocaust Survivor Cries Out for Peace (Mankato, MN: Redbrick Learning, 2003), p. 42. When we lose hope, we slam the door on God. We fail to believe that there is a redemptive power in the human condition. A lack of hope may be the single greatest affront to Judaism. Indeed, “The Hope” is the title of Israel’s national anthem. It is the underlying theme song of Jewish history. Perhaps this explains Isaiah’s mandate to speak tenderly to Jerusalem. It is not about a quiet voice or a compassionate touch. It is an order. Communicate hope. With a voice of tenderness, Isaiah lets us know that paths out of the wilderness do exist. Restore hope and redemption can begin.
Kavana for the Day
Isaiah understood that consolation takes many forms, but whatever form it takes, it must be generated after destruction. Pain needs a relief valve. Isaiah created relief through tenderness. There is an art to leaving a tender moment alone, in the words of a contemporary musician. What do you think this expression means? Contemplate a tender moment in your own life.
What made it feel special?
What made it feel hopeful?
How can you recreate that moment?