The Haftorah for Parshat Nitzavim is the last in the series of the “Shivah D’Nechemtah”. It is no surprise by now that this Haftorah comes from Sefer Yeshaya (61:10-11, 62:1-12, 63:1-9). This week, the Jews finally respond to the past three weeks of Hashem’s direct comfort, by saying (61:10) “Now I will surely celebrate in Hashem and rejoice in my G-d.” The commentary “Kochav M’yaakov” notes that the pasuk uses two names of Hashem–i.e. “Hashem” and “Elokim”. The name “Hashem” represents “Midat HaRachamim”–Hashem’s Attribute of Mercy, while “Elokim” represents Midat HaDin–Hashem’s Attribute of Justice. The Midrash says that this pasuk is hinting to the fact that a Tzaddik (righteous person) rejoices not only when he experiences Hashem’s Rachamim, but also when he experiences Din. As to why that is, the Midrash gives the following parable: there was once a man who ordered a large amount of silk from a merchant, with the intention of reselling it at a profit to his clients. On the day the shipment arrived, the man opened the boxes and saw that a mistake had been made. Instead of delivering silk, the merchant had delivered steel-wool. The man sent word to the merchant regarding the error, but while the merchant was very apologetic, he told the man that there was no way he could correct the mistake. However, he suggested that the man go to a nearby village which was known to use a lot of steel-wool, and perhaps the man could sell the merchandise there. Having nothing else to do with boxes full of steel-wool, the man went to that village and to his delight, he succeeded in selling all of the steel-wool at more or less the same profit that he would have made from the silk.
The Midrash then asks “At the end of the day, is this man angry? Of course not. The reason is because this man’s goal was simply to make a profit. Whether he made his profit from silk or steel-wool was immaterial to him because he kept his focus on the goal of making a profit”.
The Midrash continues “So it is with a Tzaddik. A Tzaddik’s goal in life is to reach spiritual perfection in this world so that he can ‘profit’ in the next world. The way he reaches spiritual perfection in this world is by doing what Hashem wants of him. Sometimes, a person experiences mercy (i.e. the “silk”) in his effort to achieve spiritual perfection, and thus his journey is made easy and pleasurable. For example, a person may be given health, sustenance, family, etc., all of which should be used to serve Hashem. But sometimes it is not so easy. Sometimes Hashem gives a person more Din in his life (i.e. steel-wool) which is manifested in challenges such as not having health, or sustenance, or family, etc. In that case a person is still expected to serve Hashem with whatever little he has.
A Tzaddik is someone who has one goal in life–namely, to serve Hashem. Whether Hashem chooses to give the Tzaddik the Rachamim way (silk) or the Din way (steel-wool) is immaterial. At the end of the day, the Tzaddik remains focused on his goal of serving Hashem.
Along these lines, in Parshat Nitzavim, Moshe tells the Jews in Hashem’s Name (30:15): “See that I have given you life and good, death and bad.” Kli Yakar notes that one would think that the word “good” should precede “life”, because doing good is the way a person merits life. But Kli Yakar says that if the pasuk had written “good” before life, people might assume that having “good” is a pre-requisite for living. Instead, the Torah is telling us that having life is a pre-requisite for doing good. In other words, a person is given life in order to do good with it, even if the person does not view his life as being full of “good”. This idea is further supported by the next pasuk (30:16): “That which I command you today to love Hashem, to walk in His ways, to do his Mitzvot and statutes and ordinances and then you will live.” Says Kli Yakar “One does not ask for life for his own ulterior motives, but only for the purpose of loving Hashem and doing what He wants.” Even if sometimes what Hashem wants of us is not what we would perceive as “good”, we must realize that our goal in life is to serve Him, no matter what that service entails.
One question remains. In the past seven weeks, we have been reading the seven Haftorot of comfort. Why are they called the seven of “comfort” and not the seven of “joy”? Perhaps the following story can help shed light on why that is so. In the very beginning of the Holocaust (before ghettos, yellow stars and deportation were common, household words) there was a small town in Poland, inhabited mostly by Jews. One of the very first units of Nazi “brownshirts” entered this town and rounded up all the Jews to the center-square. There, a list of names was called out–the names of all the young, able-bodied men of the town. They were gathered to the center and each was instructed to build a gallows, on which he would be hanged. One of the young men was a Chatan (groom) who had just gotten married the night before. His new bride stood on the side crying hysterically as she realized that their first time together, wouold also be their last. An elderly man who was standing on the side, heard about the young woman’s predicament and then walked over to one of the Nazis and asked him to let the young man go. The Nazi (who was new at this job) hesitated for a moment and then refused saying that he had an exact list of the number of bodies he was to end up with, and that having one less corpse would upset that quota. The old man thought for a moment and then said “What if I take his place?” Unable to come up with a logical reason as to why that would not work, the Nazi officer agreed. As the old man was led to the gallows, he saw out of the corner of his eye that the young couple had reunited. As he put his head in the noose, he was overheard to say “Now, I can go to my death in comfort.”
Why did the old man say “comfort” and not “joy”? Joy is an emotion that a person feels when everything in life (or at least the majority of things) is going well. Comfort is an emotion that is felt when things are going pretty badly overall, but there is one bright spot that the person can hold onto which gives him hope for the future. The old man who gave his life for another, could not have been “joyful” to die prematurely. But perhaps he at least took some comfort in knowing that in a world which had gone mad and in which human beings could treat their fellow human beings so horribly, he could still do something which was noble and humane.
Though Tisha B’Av is over, things are still not right. An obvious testimony to this is the event whose anniversary is commemorated in the same week that we read this Haftorah. That event is the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the day on which thousands of innocent people in America’s World Trade Centers, were killed by Arab terrorists. When human beings can hurt so many, so cruelly, the world is not right. While the majority of the Jewish nation is still in exile, the Temple is still not rebuilt and the Land of Israel is not experiencing true peace, it is difficult to be “joyful”. But despite the fact that joy is still elusive, perhaps we can at least take some comfort in knowing that if we focus on what Hashem wants of us, He will make everything right again, very soon.