This drash offered in memory of my Zaidy, Jack Cahan, Yitzchak Ya’akov ben Shlomo v’Esther, whose yahrtzeit just passed.
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From the perspective of the Jewish calendar, with all its ebbs and flows – the past few weeks have been devastation. In the weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av – this time called bein hameitzarim, the time of living between the straits – we read haftarot describing the destruction of Jerusalem. The palpable sense of lament leaps off the page – the rabbis crafted an almost theatrical timeline, designed to help get us in the frame of mind appropriate to the season.
Of course, it’s also true right now that we don’t need a special haftarah to feel a sense of destruction and calamity around us.
So what do we do as the season turns now thematically toward hope?
We shift away from the destruction of the past weeks towards a vision of redemption. This is Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of Comfort.
The next seven weeks are filled with haftarot of consolation. “The relationship between the people and God—strained almost to breaking on Tishah Be’av—is slowly rebuilt,” teaches Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, “allowing us to stand before God once again on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” Allowing us to work toward a more redeemed sense of self and community.
Can we really do it right now? Will it work this year? Do we believe that beautiful words – yet still just words – of comfort will suffice?
נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶ
דַּבְּרוּ עַל־לֵב יְרוּשָׁלַ͏ִם וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֺנָהּ
Comfort, oh comfort My people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated…Isaiah 40:1
To be honest – I don’t know if I buy it. While life locally is slowly returning, that is not the whole story. We may be entering a period of consolation, but for many, it’s still the bein hameitzarim – the dire straits.
What does it mean to be turning to words of comfort right now? To say nachamu, nachamu? Does it work? Can we believe it?
There’s a remarkable midrash (Yalkut Shimoni on Nach 443) that asks this very question:
The rabbis imagine God looking at the destruction that has befallen Israel, and uttering the very same words of the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, oh comfort My people…”
Then, in a stunning feat of theological gymnastics, the rabbis imagine God realizing: “Who needs to be comforted? I need to be comforted! I am like someone whose spouse died, or whose children were taken captive, or whose house burned down, or whose flocks were ravaged… Is it not Me who you need to comfort?
‘Comfort Me, Comfort Me, My people’?”
It’s a portrait of a vulnerable God – bereft of us and needing love and care.
But even in need of comfort, God turns outward and says: “No. Despite my own pain, it is Israel who should be comforted.”
It’s hard for us now to grasp how truly calamitous this moment was for Israel, but the words from Eicha reverberate:
“Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow… All her allies have betrayed her; Ttey have become her foes. Zion’s roads are in mourning, empty of festival pilgrims; All her gates are deserted… From above He sent a fire Down into my bones. He spread a net for my feet, He hurled me backward; He has left me forlorn, In constant misery.”Eicha / Lamentations 1
And now there sits Israel, personified. She looks at God and the people who come to comfort her and says: “Really? Now you show up!?”
She quotes the book of Job at them: “Why do you offer me empty consolation?” She masters the art of biblical snark: “Up until now, my head has been full of your words chastising me, and now you come to comfort me?”
The rabbis imagine the prophet Hoshea arriving to comfort her, offering his own words: “I will be to Israel like dew” (Hosea 14:6).
But Israel quotes his own words right back at him: “Yesterday you told me ‘my stock is withered and can produce no fruit” (9:16), and now you say this to me? Which should I believe, the first or the second?”
Next the prophet Amos arrives, saying: “I will lift up the fallen.” (9:11)
And Israel looks at him and says: “Yesterday, you told me: ‘Israel is fallen, not to rise again’ (5:2). Which is it?”
The prophet Micah, in his transcendent words of comfort: “Who is a God like You, forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression” (7:18). But Israel throws his own words in his face: “‘All this is for the transgression of Jacob and the sins of the house of Israel.’ (1:5). Which is it, Micah?”
Over and over, the prophets Yoel, and Chagai, and Tzephaniah, and Malachi, and Zechariah and Nachum (whose very name means comfort!) arrive, and Israel turns their words back at them. She will not be comforted. The words of prophecy and reconciliation just do not match the world of devastation and discomfort she is living in.
Habakuk offers words of deliverance, but Israel knows better. She says: “Yesterday you told me ‘How long, O God, shall I cry out and You not listen; shall I shout to You, “Violence!” and You not save me!?’ (1:2) and now you come and say this to me?! – Which should I believe?”
How much do we feel like we cry out and hear no response when we need it most? How much do we feel like even the very words of our tradition are inconsistent or insufficient?
The midrash offers an empowering vision of Israel – refusing to accept what she believes to be empty words; standing up for herself and owning the sense of loss and pain she’s experiencing.
So it is then, and only then, when the Holy Blessed One says the following:
Then it’s only right that I should go to her, because I was the one who violated what I wrote in the Torah.
I told them not to work their firstborn ox (Deut 15:19), but then I put their necks under the yoke of Babylonia (Jeremiah 27:12)
I wrote in my Torah: “You shall not hate your fellow in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17) but I hated her — therefore it is on me.
I wrote in my Torah: “you shall not reap to the edges of your field” (Leviticus 19:9) and I reaped my anger upon them. (Lamentations 4:11).
I wrote in my Torah: “the one who started the fire must make restitution (Exodus 22:5), and I set her on fire (Lamentations 1:13)”Yalkut Shimoni on Nach 443
It’s a bittersweet portrait of broken God admitting that God herself violated the Covenant and needs to do teshuvah. A lesson of responsibility and integrity (or lack thereof).
The midrash vividly continues:
The Holy Blessed One goes to Israel and says: “My Daughter, why all of this anger?”
Israel replies: “Ribono shel Olam, Why shouldn’t I be angry? You dispersed me, and cursed me, and whipped me until my face looked like iron, and despite all of this I sanctified Your great name!”
God said to her: “My Daughter, the time has come to be redeemed.”
But she snaps back.
“I won’t be comforted until you show me some justice. What, are we going to be like family? Like which family? Like Cain and Abel? He killed him. Like Ishmael and Isaac? He hated him. Like Esau and Jacob? He also hated him. Like Joseph’s brothers? They all hated him.”
Israel, to God: Thanks, but no thanks. You can keep your precious words of comfort.
It’s a very stark, yet very real feeling that I think many of us can appreciate. How hard it is to be comforted, to be open to the vulnerability of others even in our own vulnerability. How profoundly hard it is to accept words of reconciliation from those who have caused us pain.
The magnitude of Israel staring back at God and saying: “No. You prove it, first” is both very real, and also, imaginatively out of this world.
And it’s an invitation for us to sit in this moment and admit: maybe it’s not okay right now.
Maybe we’re not ready to be consoled.
Maybe we’re not there yet – even if the Jewish calendar, or the government decides we’re ready to move to the next phase.
Maybe, like Israel, we’re still sitting on the floor, exiled, mourning our losses.
Lost lives. Lost presence with each other. Lost time.
And that’s ok.
It takes a lot of resilience.
So perhaps that’s why the midrash closes with the image of Joseph. That – God and Israel agree – is the symbol of how to move forward. Joseph – such an icon of resilience. Subject to his brothers’ hatred, who nearly killed him, then abandoned him, then sold him into slavery, which led to his eventual imprisonment.
Even in the face of such unimaginable and justified anger, Joseph forgave them and ultimately laid the groundwork for a future together with them.
The rabbis close the midrash by teaching that if Joseph, of all people, could speak to his brothers with kind and comforting words after all they did to him, then all the more so could the Holy Blessed One be kind and comforting to Israel.
God had to turn to us humans for a model of comfort.
So we can turn to each other.
But – like Israel – only when we’re ready.
May these next seven weeks help us get there, and may we help each other.