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Rabbi Wittenberg's Weekly Message

Erev Shabbat Nachamu, 10 Av 5769
Friday, 31 July, 2009

Dear Community,

How I love the words with which this week’s Haftarah begins, ‘Nachamu, nachamu, ammi - Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people’. They give its name to the Shabbat, Shabbat Nachamu, which follows the fast of Tishah Be’Av which, with its grim liturgy, has taken us down in mourning to the depths of tragedy and destruction. They open the sequence of what our rabbis called the shiva denachmata, the seven prophetic readings of consolation, which lead us up to the New Year. ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye’: every year I look forward to hearing these opening words and every year I think of Reverend Martin Luther King as I listen to the verses which follow, ‘Every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low…and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together’.

But I also feel challenged by those words. The need for comfort is often desperate; at times, there is nothing people require more acutely from their religion. Thus, Judaism teaches us the mitzvah of Nichum Avelim, comforting mourners, and little can be more important. But how deeply, or truly, can comfort actually be offered? ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem’, says God to the prophet Isaiah in our Haftarah. But where the heart really hurts, where the death of someone with whom our life’s dreams and meanings have daily been bound has punctured it, can we really bring consolation? Is there any art or skill which can truly staunch the flow of spirit down, down into the abyss of lonely hopelessness? Secret pain is the existential reality in which countless people live their every day.

Yet I do believe in the power of comfort, even though there are times and situations when pain and grief seem far more powerful. Our words alone cannot bring consolation; but sometimes our friendship can help to find it. ‘I rescued the bird from the cat’s grasp; I held it in my hands for a long time until the palpitations of its heart grew calm, then I let it fly away’; sometimes our presence and companionship, if we prove faithful over much time, can be to one another what my friend’s cupped hands were to that robin. More often it is not we at all who provide the comfort; rather we point towards it together. It as if we were saying, ‘Look at this life; see the spring draw the green buds of the daffodils from the earth, see March restores the leaves to the barren trees.’ Often all we can do is to join the struggle by the side of our friend, although we recognise that in the heart of the battle he or she must fight alone, as if to say, ‘Let the good predominate in the soul over the bad; let healing be stronger than pain; may there be sweetness, not bitterness, inside’. Ultimately we appeal to God who alone has the power to suture the heart and restore its spirits from within.

Yet at times, teach the rabbis, even God weeps. What was God doing when the Temple was destroyed? What does God do when life is desecrated anywhere? ‘God is in the inner chambers weeping’, says the Talmud. A poignant rabbinic reading reformulates the grammar of the opening words of our Haftarah: ‘"Comfort me, comfort me", says your God’. Is not God, who has entrusted us with the free will to make choices which devastate this potentially wonderful world, vulnerable too? Why shouldn’t God weep?

At that moment, comfort becomes our most urgent moral responsibility. It asks of us what we can do, each of us, to bring healing to a world full of suffering and hurt. For these words ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye’ are a double imperative. We and God must work together.

Shabbat Shalom

Jonathan Wittenberg