August 1, 2020, Nachamu – Finding Comfort
On Wednesday night and Thursday of this past week, we observed Tisha b’Av – a day of fasting and mourning the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, as well as a number of other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish People over the centuries. Even with anti-Semitism on the rise – again, or still, in other years Tisha b’Av has felt more historical than contemporary. The second Temple was destroyed nearly 2000 years ago, after all. The expulsion of the Jews from England happened in the year 1290, and from Spain in 1492. Not exactly recent events.
This year, however, Tisha b’Av, felt more current. The holiday itself recalls destruction, upheaval, fear, change, and exile, all of which we are experiencing now. So many lives have been destroyed by Covid-19 and the numbers continue to grow exponentially; the US economy had its worst quarter ever; we are afraid – afraid to leave our homes, afraid to go to the grocery store, afraid when we hear someone across the street cough or sneeze.
We are living through a period of immense change – we now connect solely through technology, or maybe once in awhile, a ‘carefully planned socially distanced outdoor gathering with one other household,’ wearing a mask is de rigueur and barely feels strange anymore, and these changes, while keeping us safe, have led to physical isolation, which we could also call exile.
Unless it is absolutely necessary, we are not making travel plans. We haven’t been in our synagogue building since March. We haven’t set foot inside a restaurant or theater or concert hall or sports stadium in months and it is likely to be many more months before we do. So as one of my friends put it, Tisha b’Av felt a bit ‘on the nose’ this year.
In a more general sense, I find it intriguing that Tisha b’Av connects two seasons on the Jewish calendar that could not be more different in nature. For the three weeks before Tisha b’Av, we find ourselves in a downward spiral of grief. Traditionally observant Jews don’t wear new clothes, get married, or listen to live music. In the nine days before Tisha b’Av, they don’t eat meat or drink wine except on Shabbat.
There is a heaviness on the Jewish calendar. And when Tisha b’Av itself comes, we sit in the dark, sometimes on the floor to listen to Eicha – the Book of Lamentations, which is chanted in a mournful almost wailing trope. Traditionally we don’t greet each other – no hi, how are you, we refrain from eating and drinking and wearing leather shoes. It is a sad and tragic day.
And then, almost on a dime, the mood shifts. The Shabbat immediately after Tisha b’Av is known as Shabbat Nachamu, as Austin mentioned in his D’var Torah a bit earlier. Today is the Shabbat of comfort – based on Isaiah’s words which opened our Haftarah, “nachamu nachamu ami, yomar Eloheichem – Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God.”
After three weeks of admonition and mourning, we are to seek comfort and solace, as we enter a new phase of the Jewish calendar – the seven weeks of consolation. These weeks lead us from the tragedies of Tisha b’Av to the spiritual high of Rosh HaShanah, with all the promise that a new year holds. After the despair of Tisha b’Av, comfort makes a lot of sense.
But this year, I find myself asking, how will we find comfort? What does comfort feel like when we are still in exile, when we are still living in fear and with upheaval all around us? The season on the Jewish calendar might have changed, but our circumstances have not.
Soon, we will enter the High Holy Day season with the month of Elul – what will the High Holidays look like this year, we might be wondering. What will they feel like? How will we achieve a spiritual connection as we use our screens to help us pray and to come together in community? We know this year will be different, but we probably can’t imagine just how different, even having held virtual Shabbat and holiday services for the last 19 weeks, even remembering back to zooming in for seder.
What will the High Holidays feel like? How do we find nechemta – how do we find comfort? Perhaps the beginning of an answer can be found in our Torah portion this morning – Parashat Va-etchanan.
The opening word – va-etchanan, expresses Moses’ humanity. Va-etchanan means to plead, to beg, according to Targum Yonatan, it means, to seek mercy. It has connotations of praying fervently for chen, which means grace and comes from the same root as va-etchanan. This is what Moses does – he begs, he pleads with God to allow him to enter the land of Israel. He asks for God’s grace in granting this gift. But as we know, and as Moses knows too, he will not enter, and he will have to find a way to make peace with God’s offer to see the land from a distance. Moses will have to settle for something less than he had hoped, but something that also contains beauty, and blessing, and promise.
Moses is a powerful role model for us. He lives his life in exile, and yet, it is a life filled with blessing. As a Jewish People, we have lived most of our existence in exile – we have lived in fear and upheaval, and yet, not only have we survived, we have thrived. Our customs and rituals have evolved over the centuries in response to what was happening in Jewish communities.
The Talmud and Rabbinic Judaism – the basis for how we practice today, grew as a response to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. The Conservative Movement was born out of a desire to conserve Jewish tradition while also being part of secular society. On Thursday afternoon, Rabbi Berkenwald taught that our custom of inviting all mourners to recite Kaddish in unison comes from a response to the cholera epidemic in the 19th century.
Being nimble while holding onto our core values has enabled us to thrive throughout our history. Undoubtedly, there will be changes that grow out of this period too, and I am hopeful that those changes will add to our story of resilience and flexibility. I find this to be a source of nechemta –of comfort and strength.
Rabbi Mychal Springer, the founder of the Center for Pastoral Education at JTS, offers another source of comfort in her D’var Torah on Parashat Va-etchanan, entitled “Holding Fast.”
“God is helping Moshe to cultivate a sense of gratitude in the face of brokenness. The comfort comes in seeing the gifts that exist even in the brokenness. The hen, the grace, the free gift, does not depend on reaching the Land…When God tells Moshe that he can see the Land from where he is, God teaches him that the gift, the abundance, doesn’t need to look like what he thought—and hoped—it would look like. If we can find a way to cultivate gratitude, to find ways to affirm rav lakh, enough, then we can experience the hen/grace in our lives. And this is where we can find comfort.”
It is safe to say that our lives don’t look the way we thought they would, and that our season of comfort, and our High Holiday season will look different this year too. But just as Moses finds the blessing, the gift in seeing the land rather than setting foot in it, perhaps we can open our eyes and hearts to see the gifts in the brokenness and the disruption of 2020, so that we too might sense hen/grace.
On this Shabbat, when we say nachamu nachamu – let us find comfort in trusting that we will get through this time, as our ancestors have done throughout the centuries. And let us find comfort in knowing that like Moses, we have the ability to discover gifts in the brokenness in the seasons to come.