Nachamu, nachamu ami—Comfort, comfort My people.” These are the famous opening words of chapter 40 in Isaiah (our haftarah begins later in the chapter). With these opening words the prophet delivers G‑d’s words of consolation to the Jewish people. In order to comfort, however, Isaiah must first address the most begging question of all: What can possibly justify suffering? What about all the mitzvahs and good deeds the people have done? Is this what they receive in return for remaining faithful to G‑d? “My way has been hidden from G‑d,” say the Jews; “my cause has been passed over by my G‑d.”

The response comes forth in classic biblical style. G‑d is the creator of all. There is no fathoming the depths of His plan. But there is something ultimately great that will be achieved with these afflictions, a goal that will make it all worthwhile.1 What remains certain, nonetheless, is that the time will come when the tables will turn. The Jewish people, who are tired and weary from exile, will gain renewed strength and might. Those who tormented them, while now seeming young and vigorous, will become weak and falter.

G‑d, as it were, contends with the mighty nations of the time. They are reminded that Abraham was but a single man whom G‑d elevated and assisted throughout his life. All alone, he stood up to the world in his belief in one G‑d. Although vastly outnumbered, he routed the mighty armies of four kings in rescuing his nephew Lot. So there is precedent. Just as with their forefather, G‑d will ultimately stand by the Jewish people, elevate them and assist them. (This part of the reading is the obvious connection to the Torah portion, whose story is the life of Abraham.)

Following in the footsteps of their ancestor Abraham, the Jews would always be different than the rest. While the nations of the world witnessed the miracle that was Abraham, they thoughtlessly and pragmatically continued to pursue the idolatrous lifestyle they were used to. G‑d reassures His people not to fear, for He will never leave them. He has chosen them, and will come through for them. The time will come when Israel will crush its enemies forever.2

The Worm That Is Jacob

“Fear not, O worm-like Jacob”—the prophet compares the Jewish people to a worm.

The simple idea behind the comparison to a worm is the feeble and vulnerable nature of the Jews in exile. The sages, however, see another angle to this: “Why are the Jews compared to a worm? Just as the strength of a worm lies only in its mouth, so too with the Jewish people, whose power lies only in prayer. By the same token, just as a worm, although small and weak, can destroy a cedar tree with its mouth, so too the Jewish people can make mighty but wicked nations fall with the power of their prayer.”

This comparison to the weakness yet the strength of the worm, and its analogy to our state in exile, is further expounded upon in chassidic thought:

During the time of exile, we are deprived from fulfilling most of the mitzvot in the Torah. These are mitzvot that depend on the Temple standing, on having a Jewish king, the Sanhedrin being in session, etc. But although we are unable to fulfill these mitzvot in the most literal sense, they can still be “kept” in the spiritual sense through the learning of Torah. Our sages tell us that “he who studies the laws of a sacrifice is as if he has actually offered this sacrifice.” This, then, is the comparison of the Jewish people to the worm: just as the strength of the worm is in its mouth, so too the ability of the Jew in exile to spiritually fulfil most of the mitzvot is through speech—for the ideal way of learning Torah is by enunciating its words verbally.

But this has an additional dimension, which comes back to the simple meaning of the verse. King David says in Psalms: “I am but a worm, and not a man.”3 This was his expression of extreme humility. The reason why Torah study can achieve the spiritual fulfilment of a mitzvah is because when a Jew studies Torah, he is allowing himself to enter into the G‑dly realm manifested in this particular part of Torah. On this level of reality, the physical hindrances that disable the actual fulfilment of a the mitzvah are inconsequential. The spiritual element of the mitzvah is true and existent, regardless of physical conditions. However, one must allow themselves to be elevated to and included in this G‑dly reality. Maintaining a sense of self—let alone ego—will keep one back in an earthly and and material state, not allowing one to rise at all above it.

Thus, both ideas in the analogy to the worm go hand in hand: the power lies in the mouth, but the worm-like humility is imperative to achieve the goal.4

Threshing and Winnowing

“Behold I have made you into a new grooved threshing-sledge, with sharp points; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them fine, and you shall make hills like chaff. You shall winnow them, and a wind shall carry them off, and a tempest shall scatter them.”

The “mountains” and “hills” that are being threshed refer to the nations of the world who oppress the Jews. In time to come they will be crushed, scattered and caused to be lost by the very people unto whom they sought to do just the same.

A parable in the Midrash complements this idea:

“The wheat, chaff and straw were once arguing with each other. Each one was saying, “It is for our purpose that this field was sown!” Said the wheat: “Wait until the time of threshing arrives, and we will yet see for whose purpose the field has been sown.” After being threshed on the threshing floor, the farmer proceeded to winnow the grain. He took everything aside from the kernels, and either burned it or discarded it, saving nothing else besides the kernels. So to is it with the nations of the world: some say, “We are the main thing, and it is for us that the world was created,” while others contend and say, “It is for us that the world was created.” The Jewish people respond to them: “Wait till the day comes, and we will see for whom the world was created.”5

The exile is a time when confusion prevails. In each generation, the world outside hollered and screamed, “This is it! We are what this world is all about.” But a little Jewish people, scattered among many and mighty nations, said no. The purpose of of creation is something different. The time will come when a systematic “threshing” will take place. By virtue of who they are, the Jews will bring out the straw-like weakness of worldly pursuits and the infinite value of a G‑dly life.