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 Emor: the price of disrespect

Parashat Emor includes, coincidentally, the mitzvah (command) of Sefirat haOmer, the counting of the omer (a sheaf of barley). The original idea is probably agricultural: during the ongoing barley harvest, bringing a sheaf from each day’s harvest for a formal count may have been some kind of ritual effort to keep the harvest abundant. It is true that we sometimes delight in counting out or otherwise measuring that which we are excited about, or care deeply about.

Today, erev Shabbat, is the 34th day of the Omer; yesterday was the 33rd, which is a minor holy day known by a name derived from the count: Lag BaOmer literally means “33 of the omer”. (Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and so every Hebrew number can also be pronounced. Thus the names of the holy days Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, and Tu b’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat.)

  וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה:  שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה

Count for yourself from the day after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the omer to wave; seven complete weeks

  עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת, תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם; וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה, לַיהוָה

until the morrow after the seventh week, count off fifty days; and then present a new meal offering unto HaShem. (Lev 23.15-16)

Lag baOmer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, marks the end of the period of semi-mourning which characterizes the first 32 days of the counting period. Why should the first 32 days after the Pesakh Seder be a somber time, when by traditional minhag weddings are not celebrated, beards are not cut, and parties and dancing are considered inappropriate?

The traditional explanation is that during this time period, long ago in Israel, 24,000 students of the celebrated Rabbi Akiba died of plague. The Talmud does not stop with the story, though – it goes on to give a reason:

“Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand students and all of them died in one period of time because they did not treat each other with respect. It is taught that they all died between Passover and Shavuot, and that they all suffered bitter deaths” (TalmudYevamot 62b). 

It may seem outrageous that so many would die as a result of being disrespectful, but consider the ancient teaching that “because of baseless hatred, the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled from our land”. (Talmud Yoma 9a) Much of what happens to us, insists our Jewish sources of learning, has to do with our morality. Certainly the prophets would agree. After all, it’s not as if we are asserting that if we behave badly, a giant hand will appear from heaven and punish us in some way; the prophets insist that, rather like losing one’s kingdom for the want of a horseshoe nail, the integrity of our world depends upon apparently small, small things. After all, we are taught that the entire world does rely upon three things: study, internalization of that which is learned, and acting with kindness at all times – TorahAvodah, and Gemilut Hasadim.

Whatever the source of sadness that echoes through the Jewish calendar at this time of year, it is real. The traditional minhagim restricting joy during these 33 days (it lets up after Lag BaOmer) are a haunting reminder of a grief that is no longer remembered directly. Like a yahrzeit, it comes yearly to remind us that we have mourned, as a people, the consequences of immoral behavior toward each other. 

On this Shabbat, consider the destructive consequences of your smallest acts of disrespect toward others – your colleagues, friends, children, parents, strangers – and seek to replace them with kindness. May we all become more mindful of the power we wield.