'Comfort ye, my people': How Isaiah's words speak to Jews today

After the destruction of the two Temples commemorated last week on Tisha B'Av through fasting and prayer, Jewish people now embark on the Seven Haftorahs of Consolation leading up to Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), the birthday of the world.

All seven weekly Bible readings from now until then are taken from the last section of the Prophet Isaiah.

Wikimedia CommonsGeorge Friedrich Handel used the Hebrew Bible in Messiah.

Saturday's reading opened with the famous passage of Isaiah 40, 'Comfort ye my people', well known even to secular people from Handel's Messiah.

Handel wrote a great deal of music on Jewish themes, but this was in an era when Christians admired the Hebrew Bible, took it seriously and celebrated it wherever possible.

We no longer live in such an age. Many no longer regard the Jews as a 'light unto the nations', but as an embarrassment, while others view us as the 'enemy'.

The twin political powers of religious terrorism and puerile un-religion are the chief forces to be reckoned with: Jew-baiting is on the increase and Jewish schools and colleges are being guarded around the clock.

Isaiah tries to comfort the Jewish people by informing them that 'all flesh is grass' and 'the nations are like a bitter drop from the bucket'. He bucks them up with the good news that 'the time of [our exile] has been fulfilled.'

And at first glance this consoling thought appears to be true: the State of Israel 'in the desert [has] clear[ed] the way of the Lord'.

So why does the world revile the Jewish people all the more?

Isaiah goes on to describe the Jewish people as 'a light unto the nations'. Surely not, when her own light has gone out in Europe and many are hiding from the scourge and humiliation of being G-d's 'chosen people'.

However, it is still important to behave as a 'light unto the nations' even in the throes of despair. But where does one start?

Many Jews look around and see that their own values are no longer the values of their neighbours. Nothing is stable. On the one hand: murder and massacre in the name of religion. On the other hand: post-family, post-gender and post-truth.

It states in the Talmud: 'When the Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born', meaning that when Jews lost their country and had to disperse, they knew they would suffer in exile.

But suffering is there for a purpose. If used positively it can bring about redemption.

Through the sufferings of Exile, redemption may be ours, as well as comfort, and this is also known as 'the Days of the Messiah'.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic and author who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.

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