Dear Rabbi Fried,
Can you please explain the meaning of Shabbat Nachamu? I heard in a class that there are three weeks of Haftarah portions leading up to the day of Tisha B’Av and then seven weeks of portions of comforting, starting with Nachamu.
Why would there be so many more weeks of comforting, and how could we be comforted immediately after the destruction of our people? Could you please provide some explanation or meaning to this period; it would be appreciated!
— Rhonda W.
You are referring to the Haftarah from the Book of Isaiah (40:1-26), which commences with the famous prophetic phrase, “Be comforted, be comforted My people, says God!”
Isaiah, one of the prophets who prophesied the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people, exhorts the Nation to not give up hope. They need to know that despite the dismal times ahead, there is destined to eventually be a better future.
Still, despite knowing there will be a bright future, it is quite difficult to be “comforted” when we are surrounded by utter darkness and everything is caving in around us. It takes a lot more thought, trust and contemplation to get to a level of comfort with that than it does to focus upon the impending destruction; hence many more weeks of introspection and meditation were instituted; the seven weeks of consolation, than the three weeks established to focus upon the destruction itself.
We can take this a step deeper. The word “nachem” is usually translated as comfort or consolation. In fact, these translations are not precise; the literal meaning is to be able to take a different look at the same set of circumstances. It is a paradigm shift in the perception of what has transpired.
The Talmud relates the story of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues confronting the place where the Temple once stood, after its destruction. The Rabbis, upon seeing a fox walking on the spot of the former Holy of Holies, burst out crying, while Rabbi Akiva laughed. Shocked, they inquired as to the reason for his laughter; he asked them why they are crying. Why are we crying?! This is the holiest spot in the world, where even the holiest Jew would not have permission to enter it besides the High Priest on Yom Kippur, and now a fox is walking there, why shouldn’t we cry?! Rabbi Akiva went on to show them that it was precisely that fox which was the fulfillment of the prophecy of destruction that leads to the next prophecy of the eventual redemption and rebuilding of the Temple; hence it’s a reason for him to rejoice. The Rabbis told Rabbi Akiva that he has brought them to Nechama; to see what is a tragedy in a different light, though the lens of the first step of redemption. This was a paradigm shift of the highest order.
There are many examples throughout rabbinic writings which teach us how to look at this tragedy through both lenses; the lens of the tragedy that it is, and, concurrently, through the lens of the silver lining and the revelation of God behind the scenes even when He seems to be completely hidden. The second lens teaches us, and comforts us, with a new depth of perception as to the deep, unbroken connection between God and the Jewish People.
Many scary things happen around the world. It is easy to lose hope. Yet the Almighty sends signals from time to time. He is waving at us and letting us know that He is fully aware of what is transpiring; this is the next big step in the Master Plan of history being led from Above. This is our Nechama, our paradigm shift, to join Rabbi Akiva and know that we are in Good Hands.
Dear Rabbi Fried,