We are in the seven weeks of comfort and consolation leading up to Rosh Hashanah. During the first Shabbat of these weeks, we read the haftarah of Nachamu which begins with the quintessential verse of comfort (Yeshaya 40:1): נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹקֵיכֶם (Comfort, comfort my people, says your G d).
It’s worthwhile asking two relevant questions. What is the ultimate source of comfort? And why does Hashem repeat the command to give comfort? Isn’t it sufficient that He give the instruction to comfort once?
Hashem runs the world through what we refer to as Divine Providence [השגחה, hashgachah]. In other words, Hashem supervises and oversees the goings-on taking place throughout His creation. We understand that there are two broad categories of hashgachah: klalit (general, overall supervision) and pratit (individual, tailor-made supervision). Hashgachah klalit is exemplified by the following verse (Tehillim 33:13): מִשָּׁמַיִם הִבִּיט יְיָ רָאָה אֶת־כׇּל־בְּנֵי הָאָדָם (Hashem looks down from heaven; He observes all mankind). This type of hashgachah applies whether the person is righteous or wicked; whether the person has emunah or not.
However, if someone lives by emunah, then he knows and believes that everything that happens to him and around him comes from Hashem and is good, as David ha-Melech wrote (Tehillim 145:9): טוֹב־יְיָ לַכֹּל וְרַחֲמָיו עַל־כׇּל־מַעֲשָׂיו (Hashem is good to all, and His compassion is upon all of His works). Hashem’s goodness and compassion applies to everyone and everything: to a righteous person as well as to a wicked person, to a bird as well as to a snail, etc. To a person who feels this and knows this to be true, Hashem, as it were, pays more attention, as it is written (Tehillim 34:16, 19): עֵינֵי יְיָ אֶל־צַדִּיקִים וְאׇזְנָיו אֶל־שַׁוְעָתָם…קָרוֹב יְיָ לְנִשְׁבְּרֵי־לֵב וְאֶת־דַּכְּאֵי־רוּחַ יוֹשִׁיעַ (The eyes of Hashem are toward the righteous and His ears are toward their cry…Hashem is near to the broken-hearted and He saves those of a crushed spirit). This is hashgachah pratit. Of course, the wicked also receive a type of hashgachah pratit, but it’s not particularly desired (34:17): פְּנֵי יְיָ בְּעֹשֵׂי רָע לְהַכְרִית מֵאֶרֶץ זִכְרָם (Hashem’s face is set against the evildoers to cut off their remembrance from the earth).
But what does hashgachah pratit have to do with comfort? Most of the time, even if we live by emunah, we cannot possibly recognize all of Hashem’s individualized hashgachah in our lives. We may strive to do so, but more often than not we really don’t know how everything that happens to us could possibly be for the good. How is losing my job a good thing? How is breaking my leg a good thing? How is the death of my beloved one a good thing? How is being screamed at or insulted by someone a good thing? How is having my car break down and being stranded on the roadside with only 30 minutes to go before Shabbat a good thing? How is missing my connecting flight a good thing? On and on we could go. The fact is that most of the time we have no idea how disappointments, confusing situations and even tragedies are possibly good. Sometimes we are blessed to see the good, but most of the time we haven’t the slightest idea. Although we may not see or understand the good; we cannot deny that they are aspects of hashgachah pratit. We believe they must be good, and we must sing and dance and thank Hashem about them, but most of the time we have no clue about the good wrapped up inside these little presents. So where is the comfort? A comfort that we must believe in without witnessing or feeling is a tough version of comfort to accept.
David ha-Melech wrote (Tehillim 23:4): גַּם כִּי־אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת לֹא־אִירָא רָע כִּי־אַתָּה עִמָּדִי שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ הֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי (Also, when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid of anything bad because You are with me. Your rod [shevet] and Your staff [mishan] will give me comfort). David sees himself as a sheep in the flock of Hashem, the great Shepherd, and he states that there are two aspects of Hashem’s shepherding that will ultimately give him comfort: the shevet and the mishan. What are they, and why are they the source of comfort?
The shevet was an offensive weapon used to drive off animals who would seek to harm the sheep. It could be thrown from a distance or used up close like a club. We see Benayahu ben Yehoyada (head of the Sanhedrin and brave warrior) using it as he attacked a very large Egyptian (2 Shmuel 23:21): וַיֵּרֶד אֵלָיו בַּשָּׁבֶט וַיִּגְזֹל אֶת־הַחֲנִית מִיַּד הַמִּצְרִי וַיַּהַרְגֵהוּ בַּחֲנִיתוֹ (And he went against him with a shevet and he wrenched the spear out of the Egyptian’s hand and he killed him with the spear).
The mishan is what we commonly refer to as the shepherd’s crook: a long, sturdy stick with a hook at one end used by the shepherd to guide his sheep and to rescue them when they get trapped or caught in a bush or down in a gully. This is why it’s called a mishan, because the sheep rely on it and find security in it, knowing that if they do get into trouble, the shepherd has a tool at his disposal. This is the meaning of the conclusion of the 14th blessing of the Amidah: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ מִשְׁעָן וּמִבְטָח לַצַּדִּיקִים (Blessed are you Hashem, mishan and security for the righteous).
So the shevet was used to defend the sheep against attacks (oftentimes even when the sheep had no knowledge of the threat) and the mishan was used to extricate the sheep from perils they often got themselves into.
We are now able to answer both of our questions. The source of comfort is revealed in the future when the sheep (us) will know and understand and see every single instance when the Shepherd used His shevet and His mishan to protect us and save us. Every single instance! We will not just have to believe that it was so; we will see it in hindsight and that will give us tremendous comfort. This then explains the double language. One call for comfort is for the shevet and the other is for the mishan, since David ha-Melech said that both will give him comfort—maybe not immediately, but certainly in the future when everything will be unveiled and he will see Hashem’s hashgachah throughout his whole life. It is the same with us. We will see why losing the job really was a wonderful thing. We will see why the broken bone was a tremendous blessing. We will see and feel and know how the passing of our family members was the best thing that could have happened. And so on. We won’t have to have emunah that it must have been good. We will see that it was, in fact, the best. And that will give us tremendous comfort. And this will only happen when Mashiach is revealed and the condition of exile becomes a distant memory.
To conclude, the verse from Yeshaya 40:1 that we quoted at the beginning of this article (נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹקֵיכֶם) is the verse ascribed to the laughing dove in Perek Shirah 4: רְצִפִי אוֹמֵר, נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹקֵיכֶם (The laughing dove says, Comfort, comfort my people, says your G d). Why does the laughing dove sing this verse as its part of the universal song of all creation? We might have expected the turtledove to sing this verse. After all, it is the return of the turtledove in the spring that heralds redemption (Shir ha-Shirim 2:11-12): כִּי־הִנֵּה הַסְּתָו עָבָר הַגֶּשֶׁם חָלַף הָלַךְ לוֹ׃ הַנִּצָּנִים נִרְאוּ בָאָרֶץ עֵת הַזָּמִיר הִגִּיעַ וְקוֹל הַתּוֹר נִשְׁמַע בְּאַרְצֵנוּ (For behold, the winter has passed and the rains are over and gone; the blossoms can be seen in the land, pruning season has come, and the voice of the turtledove can be heard in our land). So if the turtledove is the harbinger of redemption, why does the laughing dove sing the main verse dealing with comfort which takes place at the redemption? Perhaps the answer is as suggested by R’ Natan Slifkin in Perek Shirah, Nature’s Song: since the turtledove leaves and returns every year, it is not resident year round in Eretz Yisrael. So although the turtledove is a sign of redemption, our exile continues. The tide is coming in, but the waves ebb and flow. However, the laughing dove is resident all throughout the year. As such, it gets to sing the song of Yeshaya 40:1 because when it sings its song, it never leaves. The laughing dove is always here, and when it sings, exile will never return to the Jewish nation.