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: 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.