These words just as easily describe the events of the past few weeks, as they do the Book of Eicha (Lamentations), read on Tisha b’Av.
Both the tragic war in Israel and Gaza, and the liturgy of Tisha B’av invite us to wallow in despair.
Instead, let’s dig ourselves out of the pit and ask, “What comes next? And how do we get there?”
The Jewish liturgical cycle designates the Shabbat following Tisha B’av as “Shabbat Nachamu”—a Shabbat of comfort. On this Shabbat and the six that follow, we read a series of haftarotof consolation—prophetic words chosen to move us from despair to hope.
This week, we read from the book of Isaiah: “A voice rings out: Clear in the desert a road for the Lord. Level in the wilderness a highway for our God” (40:3).
The biblical commentator Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, 1809-1879) parses this verse as follows:
“Clear a road through the desert” refers to a road that existed before, and one clears from it stones that are blocking it. But “Level in the wilderness a highway” refers to paving and raising a new path that was not there before.
Moving beyond tragedy and despair requires two actions: Clearing away the blockades from old paths that have disappeared from view, and creating new paths out of nothing. This lesson is an important one as we try to hold onto hopes that have been dashed in the past, while also searching for new ways forward.
Again from Malbim: “There is a difference between desert (midbar) and wilderness (aravah). Just as in a settled area, there are gardens and orchards, so too, in the desert, we find a place of “deserts and pits” (Jeremiah 2:6)—places where there are thorns and thistles.”
At first, the desert appears empty. Nothing grows or lives there. But then, we notice small patches of thorns and thistles. We might have two responses to these prickly plants. Either we take these as proof that, in fact, nothing good can grow in this desert. Or, we see the thorns and thistles as proof that the desert can come alive.
Today, too many of us get stuck in the thistles and thorns. Some have given up on the possibility of peace, or have retreated into justifying the actions of our own side rather than grapple with the humanity and complexities of the other.
Instead, Isaiah teaches us that moving forward from tragedy requires us to believe in the possibility of growth—even among the most deadly thorns—to renew existing paths, and to build new ones.
If we succeed in building these roads, “the presence of God will appear” (Isaiah 40:5). Emerging from the tragedy of this war, we can—and we must—focus on creating the paths that will allow the divine presence to return.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and the author, most recently, of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-on Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community