May 20, 1999
A Sabbath of Comfort
Shabbat Nachmu 5759
Thursday was Tisha B'av -- the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av -- the day on which we fast, pray and commemorate the tragedy of our people's past. According to tradition, many of the worst catastrophes to befall the Jewish people took place on Tisha B'av: The destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain, the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. All of it -- all of the pain and the shame of the past tragedies -- comes crashing down upon us each Tisha B'av.
Knowing the sadness such a day would leave in its wake, the Rabbis chose the Shabbat that follows Tisha B'av as Shabbat Nachamu -- a Sabbath of Comfort, on which we read a Haftara portion from Isaiah to remind us that no matter how deep our collective ache as a people might be, things will somehow get better. God has not abandoned us. "Nachamu, Nachamu -- take comfort, take comfort," the prophet says, reminding us that despite our sadness, we will feel joy and laughter again in our hearts.
Let's be honest -- it's pretty hard for most American Jews to feel much remorse over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago; the Crusades, the Inquisition, and, to some degree, even the Warsaw ghetto are distant memories with much of the pain diminished, if not entirely eliminated by time. So for all of us who have a little trouble getting worked up over Tisha B'av and Shabbat Nachamu, here's a suggestion: Try forgetting for a moment about their historical particulars and think of them instead as the earliest examples of one of the most important Jewish values of all -- comforting those who have faced tragedy.
Think of Tisha B'av and Shabbat Nachamu as a reminder that, sooner or later, we all walk with Isaiah, and hold our parents, our brothers, our sisters, our children and our friends, helping them face the deepest sadness human beings can know: The loss of one they truly loved. Shabbat Nachamu comes to teach us year after year and century after century that Jews must comfort each other in times of sadness.
Of course, knowing what to say and do at such a time is never easy. Most of us have been there, haven't we? We hear of a friend's loss, we call, but we don't know what to say. We sit at a funeral, and when our turn to pass by the mourners comes, we're nervous, awkward -- do we smile, do we speak, do we make eye contact, or do we reach out for them? What's right? What's wrong? What's helpful? What's not?
Fortunately, our tradition has answers; in fact, Jewish law is very specific about how to help:
1) First of all, be there. By that, I mean go to the funeral if at all possible. Your mere presence speaks for itself.
2) After the funeral, go and help the family observe shiva, and by that I do not mean go back to their home and act as if you are at a cocktail party. Observe shiva as it should be -- seven days of staying at home, letting others take care of the mourners by providing food and the opportunity to talk about their loss if they wish to.
3) Don't speak to them unless they feel like talking; they'll let you know. If they do feel like talking, don't make small talk or try to distract them from their grief. Let them talk about their loss -- it's what they need to do.
4) Not talking at all is OK, too. Usually, just being there is what matters -- even if you are there in silence.
It's not easy to help someone we know face the ache of losing a loved one. It's not easy to look in their sad eyes and say we are sorry, to listen as they talk or to watch as they cry. It's not easy to be there with them day after day. It would be much simpler to offer some pat answers, to distract them, or to merely stay away.
But Tisha B'av and Shabbat Nachamu visit us year after year and century after century to demand of us something more, something deeper, something Jewish. Tisha B'av and Shabbat Nachamu demand that we behave as a community when one of our own faces a sadness too profound for words, that we hold them as Isaiah would have done, to say as Isaiah would have said: "Nachamu -- God has not abandoned you. Nachamu -- we are sorry. Nachamu -- we remember and we care. Nachamu."
Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.