August 14, 2008
How to comfort and be comforted
Parshat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
Tisha B'Av is the day that commemorates not only the destruction of the two ancient Temples in Jerusalem, but also all our people's national tragedies throughout Jewish history. The Shabbat after Tisha B'Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, because we recite the words of the prophet Isaiah (40:1): "Nachamu, nachamu, ami...." ("Be consoled, be consoled, my people....") There will come a time, the prophet says, that your exile will end, and your future will once again be bright.
The seeming paradox is that on the very same Shabbat we read about the prophet's consolation in the haftarah, we also read in the Torah portion about Moses' personal tragedy, which seems to have no consolation. God tells Moses that although he's faithfully led His people through the desert these past 40 years, and although the Jews are now standing at the very border of the Holy Land, Moses himself will never be allowed entry, and will die and be buried outside of Israel.
How is God's refusal to Moses consistent with the theme of consolation on this Shabbat of consolation?
Moses was teaching the people a new form of consolation: Know, my brethren, that sometimes the answer will be "no." Sometimes, God, in his infinite wisdom, must say no to our petitions. We may not understand how this can possibly be good, but I, Moses, assure you that it is ultimately for our benefit.
(Indeed, our sages on this passage go to great lengths to explain why it was in the Jews' best interests for Moses not to gain entry into the land, which is a discussion that requires a separate essay.)
An additional lesson is contained in Moses' words: When I asked God to enter the land with you, my brethren, it was because I had just succeeded in my latest mission of defeating those nations just east of the Jordan River. Perhaps, I reasoned, since we are so close to our goal, God will allow me to see it to its final stage and let me enter the land. But alas, even though I was so close, it was not meant to be. Sometimes, it may appear that we are so close to our goals, and then, at the last moment, our hopes are dashed and tragedy strikes.
Devastated though I may be, Moses continued, God did console me with one last wish: He is allowing me to go up to a mountain top where I will at least be able to see all of the Holy Land that you, my disciples, children and brethren, will inherit and enjoy. This, too, is consolation indeed.
In this light, Moses' tale of tragedy is consistent with the consolation of the prophet. Sometimes, God's answer must be "no." But even when it is, God will find a way to give us a glimmer of hope for the future, that life will go on, our people will live on, and there will be a brighter tomorrow.
We have experienced, in our long national history, many misfires of messianic redemption and have heard "no" many times bellowing from heaven. We have witnessed, in our own generation, great hopes for peace in Israel, only to see those hopes dashed to pieces a short time later. But we mustn't lose sight of the consolation contained therein: God is watching from heaven, and even when the answer is "no," we are still provided with a vision, with a glimpse of what can yet still be. Imagine when the answer finally will be "yes," how beautiful that "yes" will be.
There is no such thing as hollow consolation. The answer to one's prayers might have been "no." But when the mourner is embraced by his friends and family, when he or she is reassured that no one is ever alone and that life will go on with joy amid the pain, this is truly consolation.
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of synagogue and community services for the Orthodox Union's West Coast region.