V’eschanan: Shabbos of Comfort

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Twenty three years ago I got up for my bar-mitvzah Haftara, to recite the following timeless words from the Prophet Isaiah: Nachamu, Nachumu Ami, Yomar Elokeichem. “Take comfort, take comfort, my nation, said your G-d.” Every year, on the Shabbos after Tisha B’av, the first Shabbos is called Shabbos Nachamu, representing a Shabbos of comfort. But the question begs itself: Where does this comfort come from? What exactly changed? Did the Moshiach come? Did our sorrows disappear? Is everything better, now that Tisha ba’av is once again behind us? Furthermore, is there any connection between Parshas V’eschanan and the concept of comfort?

We will explore these questions over the next few minutes.

As we begin this Parsha, Moshe continues delivering his final speech to the Jewish People. He reminds them how they all SAW G-d speak to them at Mt. Sinai, and then he reviews the Ten Commandments with them. Upon closer analysis, however, there is a critical difference we observe in how one of the commandments is presented: When the commandments are first presented in Parshas Yisro, we are told that we have the mitzvah of Shabbos as a commemoration to the creation of the world. G-d created for six days, and He rested on the seventh day– so to, we create and work for six days, and like G-d, rest on the seventh day. Therefore we observe Shabbos as a commemoration to the creation of the world.

But as we look at the commandment of Shabbos in Parshas V’eschanan, we see a totally different perspective. The Torah tells us that we have this special mitzvah of Shabbos in order to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of Egypt.

At first glance, this is puzzling, what does the fact that we left Egypt, have to do with the mitzvah to safe-guard the Shabbos? Rabbi Mordechai Becher describes in Gateways to Judaism the following:

By ceasing our work we show that we are not enslaved by the physical world. When a person is incapable of refraining from work, then he is indeed a slave. If he cannot walk past the computer without checking his email, even though it is 3:00 AM, he is a slave…Slaves used to wear some symbol of their slavery, showing they were “at work” 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They still do, only now those symbols are pagers, cell phones and palm-top computers. By prohibiting our involvement with these things for 24 hours, Shabbat prevents us from becoming slaves to the material world and its development. 

Similarly, interestingly, when Mose asks Pharaoh for a respite from their servitude, he asks them incredulously, ” V’Hishbatem Osam M’sivlosom? “Shall I give them a Shabbos (a rest) from their suffering?” The Torah literally uses the word “Shabbos” as the opposite of the slave-labor the Jewish people were experiencing. Thus, it does make sense after all, how when we observe Shabbos we are showing that we are truly free, not enslaved to anyone, or anything.

This idea, that a Sabbath is a vital necessity for our wellbeing, and a crucial expression of our freedom, while being firmly rooted in our Torah, has also been recently realized and appreciated in the secular world as well. In an article penned in 2008, Mark Bitton wrote the following in the New York Times:

I took a real day off this weekend: computers shut down, cell phone left in my work bag, landline ringer off. I was fully disconnected for twenty-four hours. The reason for this change was a natural and predictable backbreaking straw. Flying home from Europe a few months ago, I swiped a credit card through the slot of the in-seat phone, checked my e-mail and robbed myself of one of my two last sanctuaries. 

At that point, the only other place I could escape was in my sleep. Yet I had developed the habit of leaving a laptop next to my bed so I could check my e-mail, last thing and first thing. I had learned how to turn my P.D.A. into a modem, the better to access the Web from my laptop when on a train. Of course I also used that P.D.A. in conventional ways, attending to it when it buzzed me. I’m a techno-addict, but after my airplane experience, I decided to do something about it. Thus began my “secular Sabbath” – a term I found floating around on blogs – a day a week where I would be free of screens, bells, and beeps. An old-fashioned day not only of rest but of relief. 

And sure enough, as soon as I started looking I found others who felt the need to turn off, to take a stab at reconnecting to things real rather than virtual, a moderate but carefully observed vacation from ubiquitous marketing and the awesome burden of staying in touch. Nor is this surprising, said David Levy, a professor in the information school at the University of Washington. “What’s going on now is insane,” he said, assuring me that he used the term intentionally. “Living a good life requires a kind of balance, a bit of quiet.”

This was all written in 2008. Fast forward to 2021, where we have high-powered computers in our pockets, and we wear them on our wrists. Whereas in the old days an airplane ride was a sanctuary from distraction, now it is standard to have an array of hundreds of shows or movies you can watch for free, and for a small fee, you can access the internet from the skies as well. While sleeping offers some measure of relief, how many of us have our phones within 2 feet of us, or, wear watches that notify us when we get a text message? It is only worse today than it was then.

And this leads us back to one of our original questions: Where is the comfort on Shabbos Nachamu?

Rabbi Avrohom Schorr answers that to find the comfort from Shabbos Nachamu, one need look no further than the very name of the Shabbos itself: Shabbos, Nachamu. It is Shabbos, that is the source of our comfort. The whole week we toil and we work– we build and we create– but comes Shabbos, and gives us the respite and the comfort that we so desperately crave and need. Shabbos, which comes just in the knick of time every week, is truly the source of our comfort. We know that Shabbos is mein clam HaBa— it is like the world to come.

This glimpse of the World to Come is indeed our true comfort.

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