This week’s Haftorah focuses on comfort during dark times
The depth of one’s character is tested during difficult times. Two people with similar values and intelligence can experience the same event, yet react completely differently. What propels one person to look with confidence instead of fear, with trust instead of despondency?
The Hebrew word nechama (comfort) connotes an internal change. When someone feels pain, a caring voice or redeeming thought can provide comfort. Nechama is more than expressing sympathy or condolences; it focuses on some truth or perspective that enables the person who is suffering to feel better. It’s often hard to find the right words, a succinct phrase, with enough power to uplift one’s spirits.
This week’s Haftorah, the second of the “Seven Weeks of Consolation (comfort),” for the destruction of the Temples, comprises the section from Isaiah which begins with: “And Zion said, the Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.” The commentaries explain how this passage is a continuation of the theme from last week’s Haftorah, “Comfort, comfort my people,” wherein the prophet offers a double consolation to Israel. This week is Israel’s response: “The Lord hath forsaken me.”
In other words, they are not satisfied with the voice of the prophets — they seek a consolation that comes directly from G d.
Comfort during dark times
An expression of double consolation, in a similar context, is found in the Talmud (Makot 24b), which relates a famous story that occurred after the destruction of the Temple. Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road, and heard the sound of Roman masses from Pelitus, 120 miles away. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.
“Why are you laughing?” they asked.
“Why are you crying?” he replied.
They said, “These heathens…dwell in security and tranquility, whereas…our house has been burned by fire. Should we not cry?”
He responded: “That’s why I laugh. For if this is the reward for those who violate His will, then all the more so [in the future] for those who fulfill His will.”
The Talmud continues: Again it happened that they went to Jerusalem. When they reached Mt. Scopus, they tore their garments in mourning. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. The others started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed.
They said to him: “Why are you laughing?”
“Why are you crying?” he asked them.
“A place [so holy] that it is said of it, ‘The stranger that approaches it shall die,’ and now foxes run through it; should we not cry?”
He said to them: “That is why I laugh.”
Rabbi Akiva then quotes two prophecies, one predicting the destruction (“Zion shall be plowed as a field”) and another about the return to dwell peacefully in the streets Jerusalem. His conclusion: “The Torah makes Zechariah’s prophecy dependent upon Uriah’s…Now that Uriah’s prophecy [about destruction] has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy [of redemption] will be fulfilled.” With these words they replied to him: “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”
Interpreting the story
The entire dialogue is curious. First, Rabbi Akiva’s question: “Why are you crying?” After all, he, too, tore his clothes in mourning. Was it a rhetorical or a genuine curiosity?
Upon further analysis, Rabbi Akiva was asking more about the timing. In other words, you were already aware of the destruction long before this point, so what did you just witness that provoked you to tears?
Their answer: We can accept that Jerusalem fell to the superpower of Rome — something that had long been prophesied — but why to such an extent? Does their glory and prosperity need to be so shameful for the Jewish people? In other words, it was the extreme nature, how the prophecy was fulfilled, that was more than they could bear.
The essence of Rabbi Akiva’s answer was that, to the extent you see them prospering, will we one day experience joy: In proportion to our fall, will be the subsequent rise.
In the second episode, on their way to Jerusalem, he responds with a similar, but more profound, outlook: Within the extremity of disgrace was the start of our positive fate. As he explained the link between the prophecies, he gave his friends comfort.
Dealing with the future
A vision of the future can infuse an individual with either positive or negative emotion. For example, just the thought of a potential threat or premonition can overwhelm the person with worry and keep him from enjoying the present moment. On the flip side, when someone is suffering, a clear vision of better times offers hope, and enables one to accept the current circumstances. The question is to what extent can we be in touch with this future image, while dealing with a difficult present.
In the story, Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues were already aware of the principles he cited. But their emotions were tied to present sadness. For Rabbi Akiva, however, the eventual outcome was real in that moment. Furthermore, he could detect within the ruins how the process of repair was already underway.
This unique perspective comes specifically from a person who witnessed transformation within his own life. Rabbi Akiva, a descendant of converts, reinvented himself at 40 years old — progressing from an illiterate shepherd into one of the greatest scholars and leaders in Jewish history. The Talmud explains that, had he reckoned only with his present circumstances and status, he would never have moved forward and become the person we read about.
Levels of good
One type of comfort that comes directly from God is the ability to detect the purpose and benefit in a painful situation, whether during the struggle or in hindsight. But in this itself, there are varying degrees how much of the big picture is revealed. Classical Jewish works distinguish between subtle gradations of sadness and expressions of optimism:
The lowest level is yeush (despair), which involves complete darkness; there is no hope that things will improve, or any vision of a solution. That dreadful emotion — the opposite of confidence and trust in God — is regarded as a purely destructive force, something a person should try, with all their means, to break free from.
Then comes sadness with a tinge of hope. Along these lines, a typical phrase thrown around to offer comfort is the ancient aphorism gam zeh ya’avor (“this too shall pass”). This reminder of how the present difficulty, which seems overwhelming, is only temporary eases the burden. But the comfort is incomplete in that there is no vision of what will replace the pain.
Then there’s the saying that “everything happens for a [good] reason,” another phrase that tries to provide consolation. The Talmud’s version of this idea, expressed colloquially in Aramaic, is “whatever the Merciful One does is for good.” The good, however, may be yet unclear. And even when looking back, once the benefit becomes evident, the misfortune remains negative. It’s often a smaller loss that saved the person from a bigger loss. Yet the person may still be left wondering: Couldn’t I have gotten to the same place or result without having to go through that terrible event?
But then there are times when we reach a higher level of enlightenment, where you can recognize that gam zu letovah (“this too is good”). In such a case, a seeming misfortune is, in fact, fruitful — more beneficial than had it not occurred. (Like working for a company that one hates, which teaches a crucial skill that eventually opens the door for a successful career. Or a shocking event that prompts introspection and self-discovery.) In retrospect, the uncomfortable experience and the eventual outcome are seen not as two separate events, but as one process.
To find comfort in times of distress requires two main ingredients: faith that things will improve and a vision of a better future. The clearer that vision, the easier it is to find solace. When encountering difficulties, we must tap into these internal resources, internalizing the approach that “this too shall pass,” or “whatever the Merciful One does is for good.” To the extent that we experience pain, will we often find reward once we persevere.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.