Torah Commentary- Shabbat Nachamu: Hope means Justice in the Present

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Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope. (Walter Benjamin, Schriften I)

The world today is ugly, one in which we can read of children dying as a result of political battles in too many places in the world, without shedding a tear, or worse, justifying this outcome as valid or expected. We must cry out for an end to this kind of suffering and cry out for an end to these horrors.
This Sabbath is known traditionally as Shabbat Nachamu, The Sabbath of comforting. The Isaiah 40 (well known outside the synagogue as the opening of Handel’s Messiah) is a prophecy of hope read at this point in the calendar, just after the commemoration of the horrors of war which twice led up to the destruction of the Temple and the creation of millions of refugees. As a result of these experiences, traditional Jewish culture is marked by an emphasis on hope, on a belief that injustice will be overcome, and that the “weary will be given strength”, as the end of this chapter in Isaiah proclaims.
Hope seems one of the more lofty spiritual aspirations of mankind, yet one of the least frequently defined. Schiller seems to have summed it up for the Romantic era as:

Im Herzen kuendet es laut sich an:

Zu was Besserm sind wir geboren!

The heart proclaims it loudly within

We were born for better things!

What these better things might be is not detailed, as yearning itself was enough of a goal in the Romantic era. Whatever hope may be, it was usually something earmarked for future generations. Imber’s Hebrew poem, “The Hope”, later adapted for use as the Israeli national anthem, is built around a similar theme: “As long as within the heart/ A Jewish soul yearns…our Hope is not lost.” This hope is defined as (in the current official version, somewhat different from the original text), “To be a free nation in our land/ The land of Zion-Jerusalem.”
While perhaps in Imber’s time, a harsh time for Jewish existence, a free land may have been adequate to define “the hope”, there are few who would currently feel that hope has been fulfilled only with land ownership, which itself has brought with it some serious challenges, not all of which can be said to have been reached. Certainly we have no less need for hope. So what is it that we hope for? Furthermore, must hope always be something aimed at the future? Is it possible that we can define hope in such a way that it reflects a process which can be actualized in the present, in the here and now? Can we afford to wait for the future when the present is so filled with death and suffering?
In the classic Jewish tradition, the definitive hope is defined as the Messianic hope, a final transformation of all of existence into one of peace. Is this a hope that a Messiah will suddenly appear and transform the world into a happy place? Is Messianic hope a utopian hope meant for some mythological future? I will attempt to demonstrate that a tradition exists, extending from the early mystics, on through the Hassidic masters, and on to Benjamin and Kafka, which views the Messianic hope as one which imbued with responsibility, and this responsibility falls upon the present, and as a result views hope as a valid possibility for the present.
Isaiah 61:10 is one of the hopeful biblical passages which refers to a utopian future:

Sos asis B’Adonoi, tagel nafshi b’elohai– I will exult in the Lord; my spirit will rejoice in my Gd, for he has dressed me in the garb of redemption, in the cloak of justice (tzedaka) have I been draped…

This verse begins with a repeated term, Sos Asis, literally translated as: exult I will exult. Repeated terms in texts almost always prompt a Midrashic exegesis, and here the midrashic compilation Pesikta Rabbati offers a series of readings generated by the repeated words in the text, offering options for viewing future hopes.

1. sos– in the days of the Messiah, asis– in the fall of the evil empires, rejoice-in the war of Gog and Magog.

So far, these reflect the various eschatological biblical texts, with an emphasis on political redemption.

2. sos– saving all from the judgement of Gehinom (a term used to describe “hell”) asis– when the evil inclination is uprooted from our hearts, rejoice– when sins are forgiven.

One might characterize this as an “internal” spiritual redemption.

3. sos– when the angel of death is terminated. Asis– in the messianic era. Rejoice– in the World to Come, which is eternal. Here is added an “external” spiritual redemption.

The Pesikta continues to explicate the verse, explaining the two garments specified in the verse — the first garb of redemption referring to salvation from oppression, and the second cloak, that of justice and charity, referring to parallel processes of external salvation and internal transformation. A political solution must also be paired with spiritual transformation, there cannot be political peace without justice and charity towards all.
So what does “justice” mean in this perfected world? This was a question that Walter Benjamin dealt with in his Theses. Agamben explains Benjamin’s position as follows:

The Messiah is…the figure through which religion confronts the problem of the Law, decisively reckoning with it.

Will the messianic state be a “state of exception”, as Carl Schmitt viewed political leadership, a state of being outside or beyond the law necessary for its fulfillment? Scholem, fascinated as he was with the Sabbatian revolution, felt that the mystics had an antinomian orientation whereby the utopian moment would reflect the dissolution of the law. Let us review then, a set of readings of another verse with a duplicated term, which appears in one of the signal texts dealing with Jewish law, Deuteronomy 16:20:

Tzedek tzedek tirdof Justice, justice shall you seek …

Why is the word Justice repeated?
To some early Hasidic thinkers, such as the Avodat Yisrael, the repetition of the phrase signifies an “upper law” and a “lower law.” There is the “lower law”, that is, human law, which is meant to approximate, as much as possible, the absolute, divine law, in the ideal state. A variant of this is seen in the writings of the Hozeh of Lublin, who explains that proper application of law “below” prevents the need for divine application of the “supernal” law.
On the other hand, there are more normative, worldly readings in the early Hasidic masters, for example, according to the Kol Simcha (R. Simha Bunim of Pershischa), the repetition of the phrase is to warn against using law to subvert the law. If one is clever enough, one can marshal all sorts of texts to support a practice which is clearly wrong, and this kind of subversion is decried by the text.
The Sefat Emet, a later Hassidic thinker, attempts to synthesize these views in his yearly notes. The Sefat Emet initially cites the Kol Simcha quoted above, but rephrases him into a phrase worth remembering given the current situation:

…(the duplication of the word Justice is to imply) that our pursuit of justice must proceed in justice

Not every means is justified for a valid outcome. Thus he globalizes the concern of the Kol Simcha, which was more local in terms of subverting law via law. However, over the course of several years, the Sefat Emet leans toward a more spiritualized reading, with the difference from the early masters being that instead of dividing the two types of law alluded to by the verse into an upper law and a lower law, he locates the upper law, as well, within the heart of every individual. The word justice is repeated to encourage us to alas seek deeply for the truth and justice within every person. Justice must be without exception, and not separate from the individual.
Returning to the Pesikta quoted earlier, with its reading of the duplicated terms of exultation, the Pri Zaddik, a contemporary of the Sefat Emet, reads the verse eschatologically. In his reading, the duplication of the verses refers to an ancient narrative of redemption dependent upon first the “Messiah, son of Joseph” and then the “Messiah, son of David.” From the earliest days of Jewish eschatology (at least as far back as Sefer Zerubavel, which also contains an interesting female character essential to the redemption), the Messianic era was understood to be ushered in by two processes — one, brought about by Messiah, son of Joseph who was to fight the evil empires and be victorious, but killed in battle. At that point, the Messiah, son of David appears, ushers in the utopian Messianic era and the universe achieves peace.
Gershom Scholem understood the Messiah son of Joseph as bringing about the end of political history. Kafka, in his musings about Messiah, wrote:

The Messiah will only come when he is no longer necessary, he will only come after his arrival, he will not come on the last day, but on the very last day.

Agamben suggests that Kafka may be understood if one considers the messianic event as being effected by a “bi-unitary figure”, “one of which is consumed in the consummation of history and the other of which happens, so to speak, only the day after his arrival.” Returning to the Pri Zaddik’s approach to our verse, the duplications we have encountered refer to two aspects of redemption, one in which the social sphere is transformed by a Messiah symbolized as mortal, and subsequently, with the rectification of history, a global spiritual transformation can occur. This reading is in line with the Lurianic understanding of redemption, a radical re-reading of the earlier traditions, which states coming of the Messiah is a sign, an epiphenomenon of mankind’s having achieved a level of world-transformation, rather than the traditional reading where the Messiah is the cause of this transformation. The Lurianic version of the Messianic era rapidly became the default version of the end of history, because it offers a role for all of us in the narrative of world transformation. Every action that we do that increases justice and truth in the world brings the world closer to “redemption.” In this reading, Messiah, son of Joseph, equals progressive social action for the betterment of all of humanity.
With Benjamin, we can take this vision of hope and redemption one step further. In Benjamin’s reading of the end of history, positive social action not only creates a better future, but redeems the past as well. Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, argues that the approach to history ought to be one of rescue, where the injustices perpetuated on the victims of history can be identified, learned from, and thus prevented in the present and future, thus serving as a redemption of the past. The victims “have a retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.” His approach to history

…wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger… the Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins…

In other words, the goal of history, is meant to rescue and redeem the hopes and dreams of those who were trampled by the victorious, ruling classes who are also those who generally get to write the “standard” histories. By remembering and commemorating their suffering, we are “endowed with a weak messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.”
Redemption, as we are now defining it, is then constructed of hope — hope for a justly lived present, as there is no way for there to be spiritual growth or transformation without justice in the present. Only with justice in the present can we redeem the hopes and aspirations of those who suffered in the past. This is what is meant by the word “Tikkun.” And this message must be learned as soon as possible. There cannot be a just cause on either side, in which so many children die.