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: Sometimes the Answer is No

This Shabbat we study the second parashah of Devarim, Deuteronomy, called Va’Etkhanan, “I implored.” The name refers to the pleading of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, to be allowed to enter the Land of Promise which has been his life’s dream and every day work. According to the Midrash (ancient Rabbinical literature which show us how to explore for deeper meanings in the Torah text), after G*d does not relent, Moshe tries to bargain (an honorable Middle Eastern tradition):

Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if I am not to enter the Land alive, let me enter dead, as the bones of Joseph are about to enter.” … ‘No’ is G*d’s reply… Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if You will not let me enter the Land of Israel, allow me to remain [alive] like the beasts of the field, who eat grass, drink water, and thus savor the world–let me be like one of these.” At that, G*d replied, “Enough. Speak no more to Me of this matter” (Deut. 3:26).

But Moses spoke up again, “Master of the universe, if not [like a beast of the field], then let me become like a bird that flies daily in every direction to gather its food and in the evening returns to its nest–let me be like one of these.” The Holy One replied again, “Enough.”

This Midrash reflects that our ancestors did not believe in magic, nor in miracles that a human could pry out of the Divine; more, the Rabbis of antiquity knew very well from their own experience that bad things happen, even to good people, and while we may plead with all our heart, it may not change the outcome. Sometimes, even when we pray our hardest and most creatively for what we want, the answer is still going to be No.

This Shabbat marks the days after the biggest NO our people can experience; it is the NO to the plea to be spared, to not let destruction happen, to not let all be lost. Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av), now three days ago, marks our memory of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of our people. Much prayer seemed to be for nothing.
But this Shabbat, only a few days after that nadir, is called Nakhamu, “be comforted.” It seems a surprising and perhaps even offensive idea; awful things happened although I prayed and pleaded and hoped that they should not, how am I to find comfort? The Prophet Isaiah, who saw terrible suffering and destruction in his lifetime, offers this:
 נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵ-כֶם. Comfort you, O be comforted My people, says your G*d.
דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד י-ה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ. Tell Jerusalem to take heart, proclaim unto her that her time is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of HaShem’s hand more than enough reflection back for all her sins.
קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ י-ה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵ-נוּ. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Clear in the wilderness the way of HaShem, make way in the desert a highway for our G*d.
כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא, וְכָל-הַר וְגִבְעָה, יִשְׁפָּלוּ; וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר, וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places plain;
וְנִגְלָה, כְּבוֹד י-ה; וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר יַחְדָּו, כִּי פִּי י-ה דִּבֵּר.  {פ} The glory of HaShem shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of HaShem has proclaimed it.’
קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Proclaim!’ and there is a reply: ‘What shall I proclaim?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all the goodness of it is as the flower of the field;
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ י-ה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ; אָכֵן חָצִיר, הָעָם. The grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of Eternity blows on it; surely the people are grass.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵ-נוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.  {ס} The grass withers and the flower fades; but an Eternal word stands for ever.’  (Isaiah 40.1-8)
All of us, and all of our struggles and pain, are not all that there is in this world. While suffering is real and terrible in one place, joy and gratitude are equally real in another. Rather than a comforting which promises an answer for our pain, so that we can understand it, Isaiah reflects the reality of the Rabbis who chose this text for this week many generations ago: we are like grass, which fades so quickly; all our joy and our pain fades as fast.
If it all passes, then our tradition offers us not answers, but how to respond, and what to do while we are here. Our daily prayers tell us that we are to follow G*d’s example as demonstrated in the Torah:
to somekh noflim, hold each other up as each of us falls,
to rofeh holim, care for those who are suffering,
to matir asurim, help those who are trapped to become free,
and
to m’kayyem emunato lisheyney afar, faithfully maintaining the memory of those who “sleep in the dust.”
The comforting, we are promised, will come of itself; not because we found someone to make our suffering central, but because we’ve found a community in which to make sure that it does not become central to us, through seeking and doing the mitzvot that make our lives holy, no matter how long or short, happy or troubled, they may be.
Thus, we are told, we are able to immerse ourselves in the ultimate comfort: imitation of G*d, leading us closer with every act to G*d. Rabbi Akiba called G*d Mikveh Israel, “the Hope of Israel.”

May this Shabbat bring you comfort in that you are able to offer love and support to others, and in so doing immerse yourself in the love and support and hope that you, and we all, need.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

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.