From Continuity to Renewal

Lessons on endurance from our prophets

As I write, it is mid-May, in the seven-week season when we move from Passover's commemoration of redemption from slavery to arrival at Sinai and the receiving of the Torah celebrated on Shavuot.

And as I write, we are all grappling with the ever-changing COVID-19 epidemic. How, these days, can one write something to be published three months from now? How can we know what life will be like then?

Yet there is a constant which always helps us locate ourselves-the cycle and wisdom of the millennia-old Jewish calendar. As you read this, we are in another seven-week cycle: We are moving from Tisha b'Av's mourning for the loss of the First and Second Temples to the affirmation of life and the new year on Rosh Hashanah. How do the Jewish people move, in seven weeks' time, from the saddest and most painful day of the year to Rosh Hashanah and the affirmation of life?

We are not survivors. We are continuers. The essence of continuity is the capacity to renew again and again. This seven-week season between the bitterness and loss of Tisha b'Av and the sweetness and acquisition of new life of Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish season of renewal. How have we been able to do this for more than two millennia?

For each of the seven Shabbatot between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, there is a carefully chosen Haftarah (selection from the Prophets) that moves the Jewish people step by step along the renewal path.

On the first Shabbat, the goal is clearly stated: Isaiah summons the Jewish People, "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people." Comfort and consolation are the first step on the path to renewal. It is forbidden for a Jew to despair.

On the second of these seven Sabbaths, the rabbis give voice to the pain of the Jewish people by selecting the Haftarah that acknowledges, and Zion cries out, "God has abandoned me and God has forgotten me." That is exactly how those who suffer pain and loss feel. Voice must be given to their inner-life turmoil.

In the third week, giving voice to anger and despair continues with the affirmation that Israel is tormented, tossed by the tempest, and bereft of comfort. At the end of these three weeks, the Jewish people must turn from the past to the future.

Thus, on the fourth Shabbat, the Prophet, in effect, declares, "Enough with the expression of anger and despair! It is time to set out on the renewal path." On the fourth Shabbat, the Haftarah begins with God's declaration through Isaiah, "I, indeed, only I! Am the One who will comfort you."

In the next three weeks, the Haftarot move the Jewish people step by step along the path to renewal, reacquiring what the mourner loses.

On the fifth Shabbat, Israel is summoned to burst forth in song, because the mourner is a person who is rendered mute.

On the sixth Shabbat, Israel is summoned to acquire a radiant face, because often the mourner is so downcast that he or she cannot bear to look upon anyone else.

On the seventh Shabbat, the mourner is summoned to take off the clothing that has been torn and to acquire the garments of new life.

Possessed of new voice, of a radiant face, and of new clothing, the Jewish people no longer find themselves in mourning. They, now, have completed their movement along the path of renewal to Rosh Hashanah.

Renewed, we enter the new year as we have done for millennia, by turning to each other, the whole Jewish people, and to the whole world declaring, "Shana Tova-it will be a good year!"

The coming year, 5781, eagerly awaits us, filled as it is with infinite opportunities for renewal.

Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Rabbinical Scholar of the Jewish United Fund.


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