This Shabbos is Shabbos Nachamu, the Shabbos of Comfort, named so for the opening words of the Haftorah reading from the prophet Isaiah: “Be comforted, My people.” The Shabbos of Comfort comes right after Tisha B’Av, after the three weeks of mourning.
The good must overpower the bad
The Haftarot of the last three Shabbatot have been about the destruction of Jerusalem, the resulting tragedies and the causes for those tragedies. The next seven weeks of Haftarot are all of prophecies of comfort and the Final Redemption. Notice the proportion: we have three weeks focused on sorrow and tragedy and seven weeks focused on comfort, where the prophets speak of the coming of the Messiah and the Final Redemption. There is a principle in Judaism that the good must always outweigh the bad, the positive must always outweigh the negative. We have to confront the negative and the painful, the causes of the destruction – the sins of the people – and the calamities which befell our nation. This is our focus for three weeks; but the weeks of comfort number seven, more than double the weeks focusing on tragedy. We see from here that we have to allocate time to understanding what is bad and what went wrong, to look at it clearly and not ignore it or deny it; but our greater emphasis must be on the positive.
The nature of the Final Redemption
There is debate as to what the era of the coming of the Messiah and the Final Redemption will be like. The Book of Deuteronomy, in chapter 30, describes the era of the coming of the Messiah as follows: “And it shall come to pass when all of these things have come upon you – the blessing and the curse which I have set before you – and you will contemplate [these things] among the nations where I have scattered you, and you will return to the Lord your G-d and you will listen to His voice, everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul…
“And then the Lord your G-d will return you. He will return your captivity and He will have compassion upon you and gather you from among the nations where he Lord your G-d has scattered you. And even if you have been scattered to the ends of the heavens, from there G-d will gather you in and from there He will bring you and He will take you to the land that your forefathers inherited. And you shall possess it and He will be good to you and bring you great blessing.”
This is a clear promise that the exile will come to an end; but it seems to be dependent on the process of teshuva, repentance. It says: “You will return to G-d and then He will return you to the land.” The Final Redemption, it seems, is dependent on the mass repentance of the Jewish people.
However, there are a number of passages in the Talmud that state that the times just before the coming of the Messiah are not going to be the best of times in terms of repentance, but rather quite the opposite. In Tractate Sanhedrin, page 97a, Rabbi Yochanan says: “In the generation when the Son of David [the Messiah, who will come to re-establish the Davidic dynasty] will come, there will be fewer Torah scholars; people will cry out in pain and suffering, and there will be harsh decrees.” Another statement further down says that “in the generation when the Son of David will come, the youth will shame the faces of the elderly and the elderly will rise up against the youth; a daughter will rise up against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog”.
What does it mean that the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog? Rav Yisrael Salanter, one of our great thinkers and rabbinic leaders in the 19th century, explains that when you see a carriage with a dog running in front of it, it looks as if the carriage is following the dog. But when the carriage comes to a crossroads, the dog stops and waits to see where the carriage is going; the carriage goes on and the dog follows, and it is then clear who is leading whom. All along it looked like the dog was leading, when really he was not.
Says Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, in the generation preceding the Final Redemption the leaders are going to be like dogs in that they will be looking over their shoulder to see where the people are going, checking the opinion polls and capitulating to find their favour, instead of being true leaders of the people. They will appear to be leading but will actually just be followers. Another statement in the Gemara, from Rabbi Nechemya, says that “in the generation when the Son of David will come, the world will be filled with azut, brazenness. The government will turn to heresy and atheism and there will be no place for rebuke in the world.” The Gemara continues with a number of statements about the moral chaos that will pervade the world in the generations leading up to the Final Redemption.
The End of Days: the best of times and worst of times
How do we reconcile these two descriptions of the days leading up to the Final Redemption? On the one hand, we are told it will be a time of great repentance; on the other, we are told it will be a time of moral depravity. Magnifying the question, the Chafetz Chaim quotes a passage from the Gemara on the next page, which states that the generation in which the Messiah will come will be a generation that is kulo zakkai, completely meritorious and saintly, or kulo chayav, completely condemned by G-d. How do we reconcile this discrepancy? Are the days leading up to the Final Redemption the best of times or the worst of times?
The Chafetz Chaim answers that the generations leading up to the Final Redemption will, in fact, be the best of times and the worst of times; there are going to be two groups of people, the righteous and the wicked. There will be those who have remained loyal to Hashem and His mitzvahs, who will hold on all the way to the end despite the difficult circumstances. Their merit will be enormous; being loyal to Hashem and following His commandments in an environment where there is no respect for Torah scholars and for the elderly, no moral concept of decency and true leadership, is truly remarkable. In a world filled with heresy, atheism and all kinds of philosophies that are antithetical to Torah, being loyal to G-d is so difficult such that the merit of people who remain loyal is greater than the merit of previous generations where they may have been more righteous objectively, but in the context of their generation this was not such a challenge. In the generations leading up to the Final Redemption, their righteousness is going to have great merit and it is in that merit that the Final Redemption will come.
In parallel to the righteous is a group that is antagonistic towards Hashem, who attack His Torah and its values. The lack of decency and morality in the world will be so powerful that these people too, in an ironic way, actually contribute to the coming of the Final Redemption. When the world is at an even keel and the forces which are antagonistic toward the values of Judaism are not so strong, then the glory of G-d is maintained, without any need for redemption because there is such widespread recognition of G-d within the Jewish people and the broader world. But when those forces become so antagonistic, then the glory of G-d is so disgraced that the redemption has to come to rectify the situation, so that the world does not descend completely into the abyss of immorality. We await the Final Redemption so that we can see the glory of G-d’s kingdom becoming manifest in the world so that everybody can feel His presence and recognise the truth and the importance of Torah values. The stronger the forces of evil, the greater is the necessity to redeem the world.
Thus, says the Chafetz Chaim, in the generations leading up to the arrival of the Messiah, both groups – the righteous, loyal people and the wicked evildoers – are going to be catalysts in bringing the Final Redemption.
The birth pains of the Final Redemption
Taking this idea one step further, Rav Elchanan Wasserman, a student of the Chafetz Chaim who was murdered by the Nazis in 1941, wrote an essay before World War II broke out, at a time when no one could even imagine the Holocaust was going to happen. In this essay, entitled Ikvesa D’Meshicha, Rav Elchanan described the period in which he was living – and in which we continue to live now – as Ikvesa D’Meshicha, “the Footsteps of Mashiach”. To explain this, Rav Elchanan quotes the Vilna Gaon, who said that our years in exile are like a pregnancy. During pregnancy there is always some degree of discomfort, though it comes and goes. But when the labour pains begin, the pregnancy takes on a much greater intensity and the labour pains are of such a nature that they distinguish the birth process from everything that has come before. Rav Elchanan brings further in the name of the Vilna Gaon that the redemption of the world is the phase of the labour pains. When we went into exile after the destruction of the Second Temple, it was like the stages of a pregnancy. We have had trials and tribulations throughout the exile, but they came from time to time, sometimes easier to bear and sometimes harder. Towards the end we enter a period of what is called “the birth pangs of the Messiah”. The world convulses, literally, and the rules that applied before don’t apply any more. This is how he explains all the passages in the Gemara that talk about the time preceding the redemption being the worst of times.
Preparing for the Final Redemption
We do not know when the Messiah will come; it can take decades, centuries. But we do know that we have entered a new era, which is the era before the Final Redemption. It is a very traumatic time, a time of huge historical convulsions that shake the very foundations of the world in a way we have not seen before. How do we prepare for this? Rav Elchanan quotes the passage in the Gemara, which asks: “What can a person do to save himself from the birth pangs of the Messiah?
“He should be involved with Torah and acts of kindness.” In these times of convulsive, historical forces, we have to delve even deeper into Torah, become more loyal and more committed to learning Torah and spreading goodness and kindness in the world. This is the only way to chart our way through these labour pains towards the Final Redemption.
As we celebrate the Shabbos of Comfort, we must realise that we are in the throes of the birth pangs of the Final Redemption, as Rav Elchanan defined it. It can take a long time – decades, even centuries. We will be asked: “Did you await the redemption?” We long for the redemption each day and, as part of the process, we must rededicate ourselves and recommit ourselves to the values of our people, to the values that Hashem has given us. In these values we will find the strength and inspiration to move forward into the future as we await the ultimate comfort, may it come speedily in our days.