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Strange Consolation This week’s haftarah portion, taken from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, is arguably the most

famous of the entire year. ‘Be comforted, be comforted my people’, the opening line of the reading, is practically emblazoned on the Jewish collective consciousness. The thirty verses that follow the unforgettable opening are irresistibly poetic, one line more stirring and sublime than the next (Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered them expertly, but he did not compose them!). Yet, to ask a simple question, where is the consolation? As a matter of fact, a careful reading of the haftarah doesn’t seem to be very comforting at all. On the contrary, the central theme of the reading is not anything particularly flattering about man in which we might take some heart, but rather God’s incomparable power and majesty, ‘to whom can the Lord be compared’? Man on the other hand, is totally inconsequential; ‘All flesh is grass, all its goodness like flowers of the field. Grass withers, flowers fade…’ If this is somehow meant to console us, it is a strange consolation indeed. It seems to me that Isaiah is up to something subtle here, maybe even something a bit counterintuitive, but deeply penetrating. Who, we might ask ourselves, is more receptive to the message that she has failed repeatedly, systematically, but that God is actually prepared to offer a new beginning? Someone who is brimming with self-righteousness? Or, someone healthily aware of her own physical, intellectual, ethical, and emotional limitations? Superficially, one might argue that a person whose internal world is built on the former paradigm might have an easier time. After all, if one has an inflated sense of self, it’s not hard to imagine that God, to the extent that one makes any room for Him at all, would continue to be interested in maintaining a relationship. On the contrary, one sees it as an entitlement. Likewise, someone with a much more accurate self-assessment might indeed have a very hard time believing that God could have any interest in maintaining a relationship with we sinners. But, if one thinks about it more deeply, a person with a pristine self-image always needs to maintain her unblemished self. She would never be able to accept the idea that God was offering a fresh start in the wake of stinging rebuke, because that would imply some deep personal flaw that needed to be addressed in the first place. Her only consolation is self-administered, an increasingly detached fantasy which she repeats to herself concerning her own righteousness. In contrast, let us consider the second paradigm. A person who is open to the idea that humans are quintessentially imperfect, deeply limited in every way, is not only far more receptive to critique, but consequently, recognizes the necessity for a fresh start, and takes deep consolation in it. The road to consolation is paved through a sober self-assessment that reveals significant personal failure, and not through fantasies of perfection. We begin our period of national consolation with Isaiah’s stark contrast between Divine power and perfection, on the one hand, and human frailty on the other. The point is not to be pulled down into a black spiral of depressed resignation, but to understand that, on the contrary, there should be nothing shocking, even to ourselves, about our many failures. If we can accept that brokenness within ourselves, and second, accept with dignity and integrity the

consequences of our mistakes, we can then find no small measure of consolation in God’s standing offer of forgiveness.