This week’s portion falls on Shabbat Nachamu — the Shabbat of Consolation. The name Nachamu is taken from the opening verses of the haftarah from Isaiah 40, which is read on this Shabbat. God’s words: “Comfort, O Comfort my people,” console us after the prolonged period of mourning before Tisha B’Av, and the intense fasting and mourning on Tisha B’Av.
Comfort and consolation can also be found in the week’s Torah portion Va’etchanan.
In this portion, we are given the text of the Shema and V’ahavta, central prayers of Judaism that embody the idea of love — our love for God and God’s love for us. While love might not always be comforting, there is no comfort without it. Love is the essence of comfort. Love is also the opposite of the hate that defines the destruction of the Temple, which we mourn on Tisha B’Av.
We say that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred or sinat chinam. Jews were not being kind to other Jews. The opposite of this is unconditional love — the love that God asks of us in the V’ahavta.
The opening words of the V’ahavta set the tone for the prayer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The medieval commentator Rashi notes that it is better to serve out of love than out of fear. He observes that the spelling of the word “heart” is unusual — it includes an extra letter vet — and he references the midrash Sifrei that offers two interpretations for this doubling: “Love Him with your two inclinations (the good and the evil].”
The essence of these instructions is: Bring all of your self — good and bad — into the one act of loving God. The prayer commands us to teach these instructions of love to our children, and to speak of them throughout our lives.
Rashi interprets the word for children as disciples. We must be examples of love to everyone, by offering our love to everyone. This is the opposite of senseless hate. It is the comfort that comes as the antidote to the destruction of the Temple. It is the uplifting action we can engage in to rise up from the mourning of Tisha B’Av.
We are commanded by tradition to say the Shema and the V’ahavta at least three times a day during the daily prayers. We cover our eyes for the Shema. This helps us go inward and focus — and it is also an act of trust.
No recitation of the prayer embodies comfort and trust more than the Shema that is said right before bed. This is another time of trust and safety, when we prepare to close our eyes for the night, surrendering to sleep.
Scholars believe that the bedtime Shema was developed as a protection against the dangers of the night. People felt comforted by recalling the One God and God’s loving commandment for us to love. Many parents say these prayers with their children before bed, infusing this quiet time of comfort with the loving words of the V’ahavta.
May we all feel the comfort of Shabbat Nachamu, and may we carry it with us throughout our days, “when we lie down and when we rise up,” as we are instructed by the prayer of love in our Torah portion this week.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected] .