נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם
Nakhamu, nakhamu ami yomar Eloheykhem
“Be consoled, my people, says your G*d” – Isaiah 40.1
Last Saturday night we commemorated Tisha B’Av, a date on which we remember not only the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and our two-thousand year homelessness that followed. Jewish tradition also marks the 9th day of Av as a day of memorial for other catastrophes that our people have suffered – Inquisition, pogrom, crusade; the list is nauseating and surreal. By some horror of coincidence, the mass deportations of our cousins and siblings from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka also began on this day.
Now we are on the other side of this terrible remembering, and on this Shabbat Nakhamu we are encouraged as a people to find consolation. The Shabbat itself, on which we read parashat Va’Etkhanan, is known by the first verse of the Haftarah, taken from Isaiah. For the next seven weeks we are to set our faces toward hope, as we as a people follow our tradition’s rise from the nadir of destruction all the way up, up to Rosh HaShanah and a New Year.
We ourselves are caught in a terrible time of fear and uncertainty. Such a rising may seem at best incongruous, and at worst disingenuous. Yet our ancestors understood this emotional rising toward hope as a mitzvah, a sacred obligation. They knew the ancient Jewish teaching that to succumb to despair was the worst kind of idolatry of all, for it was to turn all of one’s belief toward meaninglessness and chaos. The holiness we are to seek for our lives requires us to believe, despite all and because of all, that meaning and purpose are still within our grasp – as is joy.
This isn’t a drill, and no time to take refuge in platitudes. We do not know if “it will all be okay”. The plagues that attended our people’s escape from Egypt loom in sharp relief, up to an including the trauma of the death of innocent loved ones. Now more than ever we might find ourselves amazed to be gifted with a tradition that survived catastrophe and yet could still dance upon the opposite shore. It is now up to us to find a way to join in that defiant embrace of life, despite everything, because of everything.
“To make injustice the only /
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” – Jack Gilbert
On the Shabbat morning when news came to us of the terrible massacre of the Jews of Pittsburgh at prayer, we at Shir Tikvah were going ahead with our own prayer gathering.
We found ourselves doing two things: watching the door so as to watch over each other, and at the very same time, singing our Shabbat songs more loudly than ever before.
Both are possible. Both are necessary. Without the singing, we cannot survive the fear. A wise Jewish tradition echoed in modern psychology is “fake it til you make it.” Begin the dance steps even though you feel sad; reach out to another even though you feel depleted. These are feelings, only feelings, and they are not the whole of you – or of us, you and me and them, together.
As we open our hearts to hope, may they be filled to overflowing with hope. As we defy hate with love, may we feel love deeply, and may it comfort us.
the full poem:
A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bomba
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.