Vaetchanan: Comfort at Last

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Jews tend to be peddlers, even when we have no things to sell.

Yesterday, I met a young man who was trying to make a deal, a shidduch. He was sufficiently confused by my hashkafic world that he figured I can connect him with equally confused or confusing personalities. On that score, we’ll have to see – for that story has just begun.

We forged an immediate bond (even though he was British). I was moved by his sincerity and warmth (even though he was British). We began to schmooze over pitas and techina. In the context of a larger conversation, he mentioned to me that he was married a second time – as his first wife passed away (her illness lasted but forty days), leaving him with two children. The first yahrtzeit was coming up. I was actually stunned. A few moments ago he seemed innocent, a young man unmarred by the vicissitudes of life, possessing a bren in learning and a joie de vivre. Now, this 30 year old young man seemed experienced, weighty, and yet remarkably possessed of that same joyous demeanor.

I probed a bit. “How do you feel? Is it still difficult?” My first wife was very special (as is my second). It happened so quickly. She never complained about her situation and had tremendous faith. What she wanted was for me to move on. After she passed away, I found out that she phoned up our Rav and gave specific instructions for each child; I was to get remarried as soon as possible. Her special character has allowed me to get on.

Nechama. The art of finding and giving comfort is one that Jews have had time to perfect the last 1939 years. It is the operative word this Shabbos. Comfort and joy is in the air. The music begins again. New couples and their homes within the People of Israel, built. Somewhere between the ashes of tisha b’av and the joy of Shabbos Nachamu, we pick ourselves up off the floor.

Nechama the word is fascinating. We are wont to translate it as comfort. This is an appropriate translation – but a brief tour of the Bible reveals a more primary meaning of the word. Witness the first word of the following verse (1):

Vayinachem Hashem ki asah es ha’adam… And Hashem regretted that he made Man …

Rashi, in his first approach indeed interprets the word to mean comfort. Take a look if you have a chance. In his second and more textual approach, he offers a different notion:

G-d’s thought turned from [applying] Divine Mercy to [applying] Divine Justice. He reconsidered what to do with man that He made upon the earth. Similarly wherever the term appears in Scripture it means he reconsidered as to what to do. [For example:] “No man that He should reconsider.” — “I regret that I have made him King.” All these refer to second thoughts.

Here, Rashi teaches us that the more primary meaning of the word means regret or reconsideration. At first blush, it does not seem like there is much of a relationship between regret and comfort. Let’s dig deeper.

A mourner who is in the throes of loss is simply trying to cope. The future is clouded by the black present. The job of the mourner is to survive while the halachic task of the community is to be Menachem, to provide comfort. What is the secret of this process? How can a community make up for an irretrievable loss without retrieving? Nechama surely can neither reside in a magic wand, nor for that matter in trite formulas.

Rav Soloveitchik pointed out the paradox that we lighten our mourning post midday on Tisha B’av. Most famously, we get up off the ground. Yet, the actual Beis HaMikdash was set ablaze on late Tisha B’av afternoon. Indeed some Tannaim wanted to establish the fast on the Tenth of Av. Why do we let up now?

The Rav points out, based on the midrash (2), that even as the Temple went up in flames and the edifice of intimacy was shattered, the deep observer recognized that the link between Hashem and His people emerged as unbreakable. (God was kila chamaso al eitzim v’avanim). That eternal bond, or rather that realization of the eternal bond created the moed aspect of Tisha B’av and forged the comforting message necessary to survive Tisha B’av. Post destruction Judaism needed to understand that Hashem can be found anywhere and that Shechina resides in the Diaspora as well (3).

Comfort then resides with a new orientation. The same data set and the same reality, yet it is the ability to see the beauty of a new (and true) insight that provides the comfort. More precisely, there can only be Nechama with Nechama, (the former being comfort and the latter being reconsideration). Understanding the reality and being able to peer through the veil is the critical process of nechama. It is one thing for us to be menachem; it is quite the task for the mourner to be comforted (mitnacheim).

Once the mourner comes to grips with the reality that there will be no more hugs and kisses, then true nechama , comfort, can begin. My close friend who suffered a great loss taught the phrase of “joy amidst the sorrow”. That happens when the mourner refocuses and begins to contemplate the eternity of the neshama and its implication in terms of relationship; when the mourner begins to think of what was achieved in this world, thus allowing for gratification; when the mourner considers how one can elevate a soul that waxeth eternal and what that means in terms of one’s own spiritual life.

Life is full of dreams. I have met many whose dreams were dashed but emerged stronger and others who still suffer from what they could not achieve or from what did not happen to them. Our parsha, Vaeschanan begins with Moshe’s dashed dream, his unbelievable desire to go to the Holy Land. I often think how fortunate we are to be living other people’s dreams. Moshe Rabbeinu serves not only as a paradigm of piety but also as a model of one whose great dream was never realized and yet never stopped growing.

After comfort comes building, as we say in the once-yearly bracha of Tisha B’av: menachem tziyon u’bonei yerushalayim.

May Zion be comforted and Jerusalem be rebuilt! – Soon in our personal and national lives

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander

1. Bereishis, 6:6
2. Cf Kiddushin 31b, Tosafos ibid.
3. This of course is the depth of the Haftorah of Shabbos Nachamu where Hashem personally comforts us. Nachamu, Nachamu Ami yomar elokeichem

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.