Dear Rabbi Fried,
This coming Shabbat is the ”Shabbat of Comforting” after the previous Shabbat of dire prophecy of destruction and the Ninth of Av mourning over the destruction of the Temple and exile of the Jews. How is it possible to be comforted so soon after the destruction?
This coming Shabbat that you refer to as the Shabbat of Comforting is referred to in Hebrew as “Shabbat Nachamu,” based upon the first verse of the Haftarah from the Book of Isaiah chanted this Shabbat, “Nachamu nachamu ami yomar E-lo-heichem.” This is usually translated as, “Be comforted, be comforted my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). Although much of Isaiah is prophesying the destruction of the Jewish people and their exile, from this chapter onward his prophecy shifts to that of consolation.
The thoughtful question you pose could be asked of every house of mourning, when we customarily bless the mourner upon our exit with the traditional blessing of “HaMakom yenachem eschem b’soch shaar aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim,” “May the Omnipresent console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” How could we hope to really comfort the mourner so close to the painful loss of a beloved one? Furthermore, why do we connect their loss and hopes of comfort to the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem? Who are those “other” mourners?
It seems that the words of consolation of Isaiah and the words with which we bless present-day mourners are bound together, just as the present state of mourning over a loved one is tied to the communal mourning over our national destruction and exile.
The word “nachamu,” with the root “nacheim,” does not literally mean to comfort or console, as it is commonly translated. The true meaning of the word is to view the sad occurrence through another lens, to be able to see the positive in something so sad. It means a paradigm shift. After that comes the comfort and consolation.
The Talmud relates the famous story of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues who were walking together upon Mount Scopus, which overlooks the Temple Mount, subsequent to the destruction of the Temple. They observed a fox emerging from the area that was once the Holy of Holies in the Temple. This caused the colleagues to burst out in tears, and Rabbi Akiva laughed. They, shocked, asked him why he was laughing; he retorted, why were they crying? The rabbis explained, incredulously, that this holy place that no man, besides the High Priest on Yom Kippur, could ever enter and now a fox prances about; how could they not cry, but why was he laughing with joy? Rabbi Akiva went on to explain there are two prophecies, one foreseeing that Mount Zion would be plowed over like a field; the second, that elderly men and women will yet sit happily in the streets of Jerusalem. Until he witnessed the fulfillment of the first prophecy he did not know if the second one would ever be fulfilled. Now that he saw a fox emerge from the Holy of Holies, now that the place had indeed been plowed like a field, he now was sure the second, happy prophecy would be fulfilled as well.
The colleagues exclaimed, upon hearing this explanation: “Nichamtanu Akiva nichamtanu,” Rabbi Akiva, you have truly given us a different lens to witness the very same event; you have enabled us a paradigm shift in what was previously seen by us as nothing but a calamity. Now we see it, in addition, as a precursor to better times.
Rabbi Akiva taught them and us a lesson for all time, a teaching that keeps the Jewish people going in the most difficult of times. Even in the face of the worst hatred and anti-Semitism we are able to see the Hand of God, the silver lining in the cloud, giving us faith and strength to go forward. This is the blessing we, the Jews who live this lesson, bless the mourners, that they too should see the good in their situation and have the strength to go on. It’s all part of the big picture of the total Jewish experience.
Dear Rabbi Fried,