Impossible pursuit

Tisha b’Av marks the beginning of exile; Rosh Hashana celebrates creation and renewal. During the seven weeks from Tisha b’Av to Rosh Hashana, to provide transition between the two days, we read the seven haftarot of consolation or comfort, beginning with Isaiah 40:1, “‘Comfort, yes, comfort my people!’ says your God.”

Right now we’re in the second week, and our reading concludes with this:

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:1-3)

I’m struck by “you who pursue righteousness,” because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing this time of year, as we prepare for the Days of Awe.

We don’t just wait around for the holy day to come, but should be actively seeking out and building up a right relationship with God each day. And how do we do that? Isaiah tells us to look to Abraham and Sarah our parents. They were barren, alone in a land they possessed only by promise, and the Lord made them into a multitude. So you, Zion, now in exile and barrenness, will be fruitful again.

In the same way, our pursuit of righteousness is our pursuit—we’re the ones who have to go after that right relationship with Hashem—but we can only go after it if we recognize that God alone can bring it to fruition. We bring our waste places to him and he makes them like the garden of the Lord. We might want to ask: is my pursuit of righteousness in the end impossible apart from God’s intervention? If not, we’re practicing a faith that is far too tame.

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