By Rabbi Jordie Gerson
August 8, 2014
This past Tuesday, we observed the holiday – or rather, the fast day, of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates every major tragedy in Jewish history. And it’s customary to end the week containing tisha b’av with the reading of the Haftorah portion from the Chapter 40 of Isaiah, which begins with these words: Nachamu, nachamu, ami, or comfort, comfort my people and so, according to the tradition, tonight and tomorrow are known as Shabbat Nachamu: the Shabbat of comfort.
And there’s another custom that begins tonight which says that for the seven weeks following Tisha B’Av we read seven haftorot of consolation, seven readings containing words of consolation, of comfort.
And it is particularly fitting that this Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu. As a community, as a people, and as a nation, we’re in particular need of consolation right now. It has been a terrible summer to be a Jew, to be an Israeli, a Gazan, a Crimean, an Iraqi Christian, the Yazidi. It has been a hard summer to be a human being. And so we might, on this Shabbat, have something particular to learn from the customs of comfort.
According to the Rabbis, traditionally, the seven offers of nechama, of comfort, made to the people after Tisha B’Av were offered by 6 different parties: The first week, the words of comfort came from a group of people known as the righteous, the next week from Abraham, the following week from Isaac, then Jacob, then Moses, until, on the 6th week, the people complain about the quality of the comfort they’re getting from the righteous. That’s right. They kvetch that they’re not feeling adequately heard or seen or understood in their grief. And so, on the 7th week, God steps in to provide comfort.
It’s tempting to laugh at this complaint – to judge the people harshly, to roll our eyes. I mean, after all, this is the Israelites, it’s always something, right? And God’s sent them Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, even Moses. I mean, in even the most traditional contexts, shiva only takes seven days, and Tisha B’Av is only one day. But here the process of consolation here takes a full seven weeks. So what is it that makes the quality of comfort given to the people insufficient? Why does God feel the need to step in? Or, more fundamentally: what and who does it take to transform our grief and fear and devastation into comfort?
What takes away our anguish?
The Rabbis don’t provide an answer, but I’ll try.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the Rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, has written: “For Jews, there is an inextricable connection between the notion of kedusha, holiness, and nehama, comfort. The sacred is found not merely by reaching up to the heavens. The sacred is found by comforting another in need, by individual and attentive acts of kindness, by caring, and by compassion. For Jews, God is not just in the details; for Jews, God is found in our ability to let other people’s needs enter into our own circle of concern.”
So that gets us partly there. But still, the Israelites had human comfort – from the righteous of their community – and were still unsatisfied. But why? I’m going to offer a surprising answer.
I don’t think this complaint is really about the righteous, or even about God as consoler. Rabbi Mychal Springer, a Professor at JTS in New York City, writes that “consolation comes not from a solution [to grief] but from the process of crying out and being heard. In this scenario, the presence of a…voice, able to hear the cry of the first, makes consolation possible. The first voice says: I cry out with pain, I voice my protest. The second voice responds: I have heard your protest and I affirm that this life is as painfully fleeting as you say.”
That is, the people want to know that God is also listening. They want to know that their grief and pain has been heard, and not just heard, but that they can find meaning in it.
I ended up on this bima tonight via a somewhat unconventional path. I’m the daughter of a Reform Rabbi who swore, all through my childhood, and adolescence that I would never become a Rabbi. I struggled theologically, I studied Buddhism, I distanced myself from synagogues and the Jewish world. I was, however, a religious studies double major in college (my other major was English). And after college graduation, and a few years teaching rock-climbing in Colorado, I decided to go to graduate school for a Masters degree in Theological Studies, thinking I might someday become a professor of religious studies, or a university chaplain. But I wasn’t sure; I thought maybe I wanted a more personal connection with the people I served. And so, as part of my discernment process, I spent the summer between the first and second year of my Master’s program working as a multi-faith hospital chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
It was there, in those hospital rooms, sitting by the bedside of the sick and the dying, patients who felt abandoned by or angry with God, or who were grieving the loss of good health, or functioning bodies, that I realized the immense power of feeling heard and seen, feeling accompanied. And it was there, moved and transformed by the power of those encounters, and the sense of Holiness that accompanied me in those rooms, that I decided to apply to Rabbinical School.
So my answer is this: our loss and devastation is transformed into comfort and consolation by feeling seen and feeling heard. And the process of nechama, of comfort isn’t instantaneous: it takes time, patience, and a community to help us heal from and make meaning of our lives. And yet the possibility of holiness in consolation, the kedusha of nechama, though it may happen according to a traditionally Jewish calendar of grief: (shiva, shloshim, the year of Kaddish, the holiday of tisha b’av), is actually always with us, in a world always fractured and broken but still ripe with possibility of hope and healing.
And as a small reminder of this: the ever-present possibility of offering comfort, and kedusha, I keep a poem in my office, just above my computer screen. It was given to me, years ago, at Massachusetts General Hospital by one of the other chaplains I spent the summer training with. She is now an ob-gyn, and the last time I visited her at her home, I saws that she, too, kept this poem on her wall, as a reminder and a blueprint for serving her patients. The poem was written by Rilke. It goes like this:
God speaks to us as God makes us,
Then walks with us silently
Out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear.
You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flames
And make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you:
Beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call Life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Shabbat shalom. May it be a Shabbat of comfort, peace and holiness for all of us.