Shabbat Nakhamu: Consolation Is In Our Hands

It has been a bittersweet week. In this week alone we have felt the sharp impact of pain on our relationships both near and far. The State of Israel passed a law that undermines the values of equality and justice promised in its own declaration of independence; the Federal government of the United States admitted that it has no idea how to re-unify the children and parents it has separated; add to this the fact that many of us have personal stories that keep us up at night.

Yet this Shabbat we are urged to find consolation. Despite everything. The haftarah for which the Shabbat is named declares that despite everything, there is hope if we will maintain our faith in that which is good, and in that which is just. All that has been cast down can yet be raised up: facts, freedoms, futures. Compassion, truth, and justice are bigger than any one human, and will outlast us all – we, who come and go like grass.

כָּל־גֶּיא֙ יִנָּשֵׂ֔א וְכָל־הַ֥ר וְגִבְעָ֖ה יִשְׁפָּ֑לוּ וְהָיָ֤ה הֶֽעָקֹב֙ לְמִישׁ֔וֹר וְהָרְכָסִ֖ים לְבִקְעָֽה׃
Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount made low.

Let the rugged ground become level and the ridges a plain.

וְנִגְלָ֖ה כְּב֣וֹד יְהוָ֑ה וְרָא֤וּ כָל־בָּשָׂר֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו כִּ֛י פִּ֥י ה דִּבֵּֽר׃
The Presence of HaShem shall appear,
And all of us will see it together, for that day is coming.
ק֚וֹל אֹמֵ֣ר קְרָ֔א וְאָמַ֖ר מָ֣ה אֶקְרָ֑א כָּל־הַבָּשָׂ֣ר חָצִ֔יר וְכָל־חַסְדּ֖וֹ כְּצִ֥יץ הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃
A voice rings out: “Proclaim!” Another asks, “What shall I proclaim?”
“All flesh is grass, All its goodness like flowers of the field:
יָבֵ֤שׁ חָצִיר֙ נָ֣בֵֽל צִ֔יץ כִּ֛י ר֥וּחַ ה נָ֣שְׁבָה בּ֑וֹ אָכֵ֥ן חָצִ֖יר הָעָֽם׃
Grass withers, flowers fade when the breath of HaShem blows on them.
Indeed, people are nothing more than grass.
(Isaiah 40.5-8)
In a week which has seen the destruction by our own City of Portland of the OccupyICE encampment that sparked a nation-wide movement, we can refuse to let that for which they struggled be destroyed.
In a month which has seen our fellow Jews in the State of Israel trample just as badly on civil rights in our homeland as the Federal government does here in the nation of our residence, we can refuse to let others define the values of the societies and peoples to which we belong.
And on a day – this day – on which over 2300 children are still separated from their parents, may each one of us find in the fact that we have not been separated from those we love both comfort us and provide us a compelling reason to continue to struggle for justice. Consolation, according to Jewish tradition, does not waft down upon our heads because we deserve it – it comes to us because we summon it for others.
Your communities of meaning and intention will continue to be a locus for you for opportunities to act, not alone and struggling, but together, holding hands and stepping forward into the work of raising valleys and leveling rugged ground so that we can all see and celebrate the Presence of G*d in justice and in truth.
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Shabbat Nakhamu: Consolation?

This Shabbat, called Nakhamu after the first word of the Haftarah, meant to be a Shabbat of consolation. The first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, that time of terrible destruction once long ago and now a time to face the equally terrifying consequences of our actions in our own days, is meant to reassure us that, after all the suffering and loss, consolation is possible.

But on this day it is difficult to feel consoled.

A Jew in Jerusalem – called the City of Peace! – attacks fellow Jews marching in the Gay Pride parade with a knife. Other Jews set fire to a Palestinian home and murder a child. Both in the name of religious faith.

Jews in our own community attack each other. Not with weapons, not yet – G-d forbid – but the Rabbis of the Talmud taught that the tongue is as sharp as the sword, and a person can be attacked just as viciously with words as with weapons. All in the name of faith.

According to those Rabbis, our Jerusalem Temple was destroyed as an echo of the destruction we were visiting upon each other. No Jewish organization can exist without the acts which uphold it – which literally hold it up – study of Torah, Avodah – mindfulness, and Gemilut Hasadim – loving kindness. The Temple was destroyed because we pulled its foundational supports out from under it, in acts of commission and omission.

There are many ways to express the foundational structure of organized Jewish life; they all have in common a search for meaning and purpose guided by learning, mindfulness, and acts of loving kindness toward others. They are all variations of one structure: the Jerusalem Temple, symbolized by all the good we are meant to do and taught to do.

And there are as many ways to destroy the Temple and all it symbolizes. The self-destruction we bring down on our own sacred community increases with each act of violence, each religious hypocrisy, each arrogant, “noble” political stand.

It’s no wonder that many Jews are turned away from the Jewish community, as daily we fail to practice the ethics we speak. Where we will find the consolation promised by the Prophet Isaiah in this week’s haftarah?

א  נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

Comfort, be comforted, My people, says your God.

ב  דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ.

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, proclaim to her, that her time of service is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of the hand of ‘ה double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)

Our time of service is clearly not yet accomplished. As it was put in an old makhzor, “our sins are confessed in the daily papers.” What will each of us do, in our own small way, to stand against the anger, and fear, and despair of our own day, lest we contribute to the undermining of the three pillars of our spiritual existence as Jews? What are you doing to help hold up the beacon of hope that Jerusalem is supposed to be? 

We cannot hope to act for good in the larger world until we stabilize what should be the source of our inspiration. We must be learning all that strengthens us, each of us, as a Jew; we must be mindful always; and we must act knowing that our every act of loving kindness does, in a small but real way, repair the world. 

Begin now; continue now; redouble your efforts now, that we might yet come to a place of consolation in our days.

Shabbat Nakhamu: let hatred give way to kindness

This Shabbat bears two names, one for the parashat hashavua, the “parsha of the week”, and one which reflects the fact that we have just passed Tisha B’Av, the “9th of Av”, the day on which we reach our lowest, saddest point as a people and a nation. On Tisha B’Av the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and we went into exile, stateless, homeless refugees. This happened not once but twice, both times during the hot summer days which are so harsh in the Middle East.

The first time that the Temple was destroyed, and our people were led into slavery and a fifty-year exile, was at the hands of the Babylonians, in 586 BCE. The Rabbis state in the Talmud that the first Temple was destroyed because Israelite society was guilty of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. In other words, cynicism and hypocrisy, disrespect for one’s body and that of others, and callous disregard for life were the conditions our ancestors contributed to or stood by and witnessed. The destruction of the first Temple was understood after the fact (and by the prophets way before) as a direct result of the corrosion of Israelite society’s ethics and behavior.

The second time that the Temple was destroyed, and our people were led into slavery and a two thousand year exile, was at the hands of the Romans, in 70 CE. The Rabbis ask in the Talmud, why did this happen? Our people was not idolatrous, nor sexually immoral, nor wantonly violent. The answer is that our ancestors of the Roman period, we are told, were guilty of baseless hatred. For no real reason, our ancestors assumed the worst of each other’s actions and words and responded with hate. The destruction of the second Temple was understood to be the end result of baseless hatred. Therefore, our Jewish tradition teaches that baseless hatred as as destructive as idolatry, sexual immorality, and callous bloodshed together.

Baseless hatred – sin’at hinam in Hebrew – is a judgmental anger that finds fault and assumes the worst of others, without any justification at all. It is the result of the sin of not giving the other the benefit of the doubt. It is a sin that is doubled by the sin that follows, of treating the person we’ve judged unkindly, instead of respecting as we wish to be ourselves respected. We are warned that, even as a mitzvah will often lead us to another mitzvah, an averah often leads directly to another averah. Once they pile up, it is difficult to dig oneself out. On the bright side, the world will one day be healed of the horrors we inflict upon each other, when we stop reacting as children to what life brings us, and instead consider, as adults, not only how we feel, but what we’ve learned.

On this Shabbat Nakhamu, the first Shabbat after the mourning over destruction on Tisha B’Av, the rituals of our tradition encourage us to lift up our hearts from sadness and be willing to be consoled. The Rabbis who, two thousand years ago, set this meaning for this Shabbat, had lived through total catastrophe. Everything was destroyed – yet they insisted that we refrain from despair. On this Shabbat Nakhamu, as the rockets fly again and peace is nowhere in sight, we who are experiencing something much less total, have all the more reason to pull ourselves and our morale together and hope. More, in good Jewish fashion, let us see the task of making Shabbat Nakhamu a real and complete consolation in the future. May we live to see many more of them, and may we strengthen each other to work for a time where no baseless hatred remains to corrode our vision of what might yet be. The most difficult work, of course, is within ourselves: if each of us tries never to give in to thoughts of intolerance and hatred, the small ripples of our influence will have an impact on all those with whom we interact.

Let that work begin for you today, with three small acts of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Hasadim: learn something, meditate upon it, and let it lead you to a random act of kindness. Let that be your small observance of the true meaning, and hope, of Shabbat Nakhamu.

Shabbat Nakhamu: finding consolation together

On Tuesday of this week, the world fell apart for Jews 1,941 years ago. In 72 CE the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the mighty Roman Empire on 9 Av, which this year corresponds to Tuesday July 16. The tragedy was as great in its time as the Shoah (called in English the Holocaust) is in ours. On this Shabbat ever since, Jews have gathered together, as we do each Shabbat, but on this particular Shabbat we have come together with the sense that we are in need of consolation.

“All flesh is grass”, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed. “Nothing abides but G-d.” (40.8)

Nakhamu, nakhamu ami, “be comforted, be comforted O My people”; these opening words from the haftarah for this week (Isaiah 40.1) give this Shabbat its name. The pain of that first disaster has lessened with time, yet the Shabbat retains its relevance, for who has not known the need for consolation, for healing, for peace?

The Jewish understanding of these opening words is found in their repetition. The Biblical commentator Ibn Ezra interpreted: the repetition means that comfort will come “swiftly or repeatedly”. Since the Jewish people entered an exile that lasted for nearly two millennia on that day, we are left to conclude that the latter of the two possibilities is more likely. It has not been swift. But repeatedly, and on this Shabbat, it is needed, for some among us personally, for all of us communally.

Communally – as a community. Our Jewish response to the repeated for need for consolation among our people – and in our own individual lives, after all – is found in an even closer reading of the first word: nakhamu is said in the plural. We Jews do not find consolation by isolating ourselves, but in the intimacy of human contact. Sometimes our closeness causes friction and frustration, and even pain, but we are a community, and we will find consolation, and redemption, only through, and with, and because of our kehillah, our Jewish community.

This evening, when Shabbat begins, seek out your community. If you are in need of consolation yourself, you will find it with us. If you are not, come and help us offer it to someone who needs an outstretched hand and an open heart. 

“Each blade of grass sings its own song to G-d’s glory”. We may come and go like grass, but we do know how to find consolation in song, in Shabbat, and in each other.