Torah | Reproach, comfort, repent: the original 12-step program


Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22

Isaiah 1:1–27

For this week’s Torah column, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that after this week, you can officially desist from beating yourself up. On the other hand, we have entered the third of a 10-week process preparing for the High Holy Days. That means many of us are already behind.

To explain, let us turn to the cycle of Haftorah readings for the weeks leading to the High Holy Days.

The Haftorah is the additional reading to the weekly sidra (Torah portion), taken from the Book of Prophets. Each Haftorah is connected to the sidra through a thematic connection. That is, until the 17th of Tammuz, the official opening gun of our High Holy Day preparations. After that, the Haftorah is based on the calendar instead.

We enter into three weeks of rebuke reading the warnings of Jeremiah and Isaiah. Each prophet is responding to the despair of his time as external threats (the Assyrian and Babylonian empires) threaten the Jewish people. Jeremiah and Isaiah admonish the people for straying from the covenant, thus jeopardizing their relationship with God and, in turn, their security.

We read these Haftorot during three weeks of internal reflection and assessment, in which we measure the many ways in which we have failed to live up to our own aspirations and moral obligations. Like the ancient Israelites, we are threatened and must respond. The difference is that our threat comes from within in the form of our poor choices and moments of weakness. And so we read the words of the prophets and appraise our shortcomings.

This three-week period culminates in the ninth of Av, the day upon which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. We read the words of Jeremiah as recorded in Lamentations and mourn the destruction of Jerusalem as a paradigm for our collective tragedies. Just as Jerusalem falls, so do we all. And so we find ourselves this week preparing for inevitable tragedy.

The tone will change dramatically next week with Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort, which receives its name from

Isaiah chapter 40: Nachamu nachamu ami, be comforted, be comforted, my people. This and the following six Haftorot all come from later Isaiah, in which the destruction has occurred and the prophet reassures the people that if they return to the covenant, God will return them to their homeland.

We read these seven Haftorot as we rebuild ourselves for the new year. The seven weeks of comfort and, most notably, the final month of Elul, offer an opportunity to salvage relationships, repair past wrongdoings and recalibrate our aim toward our highest aspirations.

The Haftorah series concludes with two readings that take place on tsom Gedaliah (the fast of Gedaliah, which marks the defeat to the Babylonians) and Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Here, we read Haftorot of repentance, in which we review the past 10 weeks and make final atonement before Yom Kippur.

So there you have it: three weeks of reproach, seven of comfort and two of repentance — the original 12-step program. We follow our history with the prophets as our guides to renew ourselves and our connections to God and am Yisrael. We may follow the words of our prophets like constellations in the night sky as we navigate the treacherous waters of failure and lament. But here, too, we are buoyed by the wisdom of our tradition.

The Book of Deuteronomy is marked by a series of curses that far outnumber their corresponding blessings. Between the Torah portions of Bechukotai, Ki Tavo, Nitzavim and Ha’azinu, we find 143 verses of warning. And yet in the seven Haftorot of comfort, we find 144 verses overall.

In the end, consolation triumphs over punishment and love overcomes regret, even if just by a hair. So may it be with each of us in this time of reflection.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe is a rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected]