When God says no, is it ever a good thing

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Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Isaiah 40:1-26

The pathos of Moshe’s situation in this week’s Torah portion is almost palpable. Here is the ultimate Jewish leader. For 40 years he’s had one dream: to guide his people and travel with them to the Promised Land. Yet Moshe knows God has decreed otherwise. He knows he cannot fulfill that dream. He’s asked before. God has said he will not enter the Land.

In Parashat Va’etchanan, Moshe reminds the children of Israel of his final petition: “Va’etchanan el Adonai … I pleaded with Adonai” (Deut. 3:23). Moshe asks and prays to enter the land.

God’s response is strongly and unequivocally final: “Enough! Never speak to me of this matter again!” (Deut. 3:26)

Anyone who has worked toward realizing dreams, and especially those who have seen dreams left unfulfilled, can share in Moshe’s pain. Not being able to live out a soul’s deepest desires is excruciatingly agonizing. Thus, I find it surprising, in Moshe’s recounting of the event, that he does not further explore this interaction with God. He retells the moment and moves on. He simply continues, giving the Israelites further laws, even repeating the Ten Commandments.

He seems to be avoiding the powerful negative from God.

Does this imply acceptance? Denial? An inability to come to terms with God’s “no”?

Moshe’s challenge is one all of us face at some point in our lives. What do we do in the midst of a “no”?

This Shabbat is not only the Shabbat of Parashat Va’Etchanan. It is also known as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, named for the first words of the Haftorah that is always paired with the Shabbat immediately following Tisha B’Av.

On Tisha B’Av, the nadir of the Jewish year, we recall the destruction of the First and Second temples in Jerusalem. For the three weeks proceeding Tisha B’Av and for the seven weeks leading from the fast day to the High Holy Days, we chant three Haftorahs of rebuke and seven of comfort — teaching us, in the rabbinic mind at least, that even the destruction of the temples, the central place of worship and approach to God, is not to result in a permanent state of mourning. Comfort and life must follow death and destruction.

We may not always get what we want, what we most pray for. Moshe so dearly wanted to enter the land. In our day, too, we struggle with events that cause us pain. Yet, when we doubt or hurt, God is there. God helps us to recover from a “no.” God helps us through the world’s harsh judgments.

Our Haftorah begins: “Nahamu, nahamu … Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God … for she has received at the hand of Adonai double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2). The Aish Kodesh continued to deliver sermons to his Polish community through the years of the Shoah, finally burying them with the hope they might later be found. In his drash on Shabbat Nachamu, he focused on the two names of God found in Isaiah’s prophecy: Elohim/God, associated with God’s attributes of strict judgment, and Adonai, associated with God’s mercy. In speaking of double punishment, Isaiah uses the name Adonai; the Aish Kodesh comments that at a time of punishment, mercy should speak and be heard.

Yet, earlier in the first verse, when demanding comfort, Isaiah uses the name Elohim. Comfort is sought, yet God’s attribute of strict justice is appealed to.

The Aish Kodesh elicits from this an understanding about our relationship with God. We may not always get what we want, but God does have a role, even when it seems God has said “no” to our desires. It is God’s obligation to comfort and to say “enough,” no more punishment. God may not be obligated to give us what we want, but from God’s perspective, God is required to comfort us when the difficulty is over.

Isaiah, Moshe and we all learn that a “no” is not an end to one’s relationship with God. The relationship continues, mixed with comfort and love. God gives us the tools and strength to deal with any “no” we have to face in a constant, ongoing, loving relationship.

Rabbi Michelle Fisher is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.