Fourth Haftarah of Comfort: Isaiah 51:12–52:12
Hashem is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
Hashem is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? Ps. 27:1
When I was in elementary school we had random air-raid drills from time to time. We’d be in the middle of class and this siren would blast over the PA system. The teacher would remind us of the routine: kneel down under your desk, wrap your hands over the back of your neck, close your eyes—and don’t worry; it’s only a practice run. What were we practicing for? An H-bomb attack by the Russians that might come at any time.
Today, with a nuclear-tipped rogue state in North Korea, the risk of nuclear war is probably greater than ever, but it’s just part of the air we breathe in the 21st century age of anxiety.
Today, the most common mental health diagnosis in America is anxiety, and it’s growing to epidemic proportions.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) tells us, “Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can actually be beneficial in some situations. For some people, however, anxiety can become excessive, and while the person suffering may realize it is excessive they may also have difficulty controlling it and it may negatively affect their day-to-day living.” Within a 12-month period 18 percent of American adults will deal with excessive and debilitating anxiety, and about a quarter of these cases are classified as severe. Lifetime prevalence is nearly twice as high, with about a third of American adults experiencing an anxiety disorder at some stage of life. The average age of onset: 11 years old. (All of the information in this paragraph is from http://www.nimh.nih.gov.)
In my work with people struggling with anxiety I employ cognitive therapy, which teaches us how to create a separation between ourselves and our anxious thinking, and replace it with healthy thinking. With some effort and consistency we can learn to shift our attention from the endless “what-ifs” and worries and onto biblical words of assurance and strength. We can learn to detect symptoms of anxiety like shortness of breath, racing heart, and mental overload earlier and earlier, and shift our focus away from the inner voice of anxiety and onto words of Scripture, like the opening line of Psalm 27 I cited above.
Psalm 27, of course, is more than a counter to fear and anxiety. It’s also a keynote of this liturgical season. The custom is to read Psalm 27 each morning through the month of Elul (August 22-September 20 this year) in preparation for the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The haftarah reading for the beginning of Elul opens with the same sort of antidote to anxiety as Psalm 27:
I, I am the One who comforts you.
Who are you that you should fear man,
who dies, or a son of man,
who is given up like grass?
But you forgot Adonai your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth. (Is. 51:12–13a, TLV)
Isaiah’s original audience had an objective source of fear, of course—the imperial powers posing a real and immediate threat to their very survival. But the description of their fear applies to anxiety in general: “constant dread all day” (Is. 51:13b).
The antidote to this anxiety that Isaiah spells out is timeless in its simplicity, and effective even today.
At the heart of the antidote is a repeated pronoun. The Lord says “Anochi Anochi, I, even I, am he who comforts you.” We don’t overcome our fears and anxieties by mentally solving them. In fact, overthinking and ruminating over problems real or imagined is part of the diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. You can’t think your way out of it, as folks struggling with this disorder sadly learn. But you can shift your focus, if the alternate object of your focus is compelling enough. And that’s exactly what Hashem reminds us of here; it is he, he, who comforts us. He directs our focus away from our fears—and even away from the desired comfort—and onto himself, the Comforter.
There’s a second component here too. The Lord reminds us who he is, and then asks, “Who are you that you are afraid?” Somehow fear (along with its cousin anxiety) is incompatible with our real identity, which we find in God. Anxiety blinds us not only to the reality of our God, but also to who we really are in him. Amidst the uncertainties of 21st century life, from nuclear proliferation on down, anxiety might well be appropriate to those who live apart from God, but “Who are you that you are afraid?” The prophet calls us back to ourselves, away from our ruminating and obsessing about all the things we can’t control and back to calming our souls in the presence of God.
To underline this message, the Lord provides another word in this haftarah: Hineni, usually translated “Here I am.”
Therefore my people shall know my name.
Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; Hineni.” (Is. 52:6)
The first Hineni in Scripture appears in Genesis 22, at the beginning of the story of the binding of Isaac: “After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Hineni.’” Rashi comments, “This is the reply of the pious. It is an expression of humility and an expression of readiness.” Accordingly, after he says “Hineni,” Abraham hears God’s instruction to offer up his son Isaac, and immediately sets out to obey. Later Jacob says “Hineni” when Hashem speaks to him in dreams (Gen. 31:11, 46:2); Moses says “Hineni” when God appears to him in the burning bush (Ex. 3:4); and Isaiah himself says “Hineni” when Hashem first enlists him as a prophet (Is. 6:8). They are all humbly awaiting God’s instructions and ready to carry them out.
But here in the second half of Isaiah it’s God who says “Hineni”—a remarkable turnaround. The Lord himself speaks the word that connotes alert presence, readiness to serve, and humility. God has been revealing his care and compassion throughout the Haftarot of Comfort, and now he takes it even further—he is there for us, just as he expects us to be there for him when we respond with “Hineni.”
That one word from God outweighs all the words that the voice of anxiety can muster.