Shabbat candles: 7:51 p.m.
Torah: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26
The Rabbis warn us against comforting mourners “while their dead still lie before them.” But frequently, especially in tragic situations, our dead seem always to lie before us. Their images do not gracefully retire for the night, as we wish we could. In our mind’s eye, there they still are, playing by our side, holding us in their arms, or watching us take our first stumbling steps. No words can fill the emptiness of knowing that those days are gone forever.
To make matters worse, other people’s patience runs thin when we are unable to cut our grief conveniently short. “Move on,” they say. “Meet someone new; plan a trip; get a job.” Do they think we haven’t tried? We would love to move on, but how can we when the dead insist on “still lying before us?”
The Rabbis say also, “As God comforts mourners, so should you,” meaning not just that we ought to console mourners because God does, but that when we comfort them, we should do it God’s way — a divine strategy of comfort that arrives this week, with Shabbat Nachamu (the “Sabbath of Comfort”). In the wake of the Temple’s destruction, God advises Isaiah, “Comfort my people.”
The command (nachamu) is in the plural, as if God is addressing all of Israel, not just Isaiah. “You, Israel, take comfort,” God implies — not, “You, Isaiah, give” it. Therein lies the secret of consolation. We can help people take it; words never quite manage to give it.
The fear of not knowing how to comfort runs deep in most of us; we sometimes avoid comforting mourners altogether because we fear we will not say the right thing. But there is often nothing to be said at all. Comfort is not a matter of delivering some wisdom that will make things better. We can neither explain the unexplainable nor advise the impossible. We can never explain away someone else’s grief. Advice will likely fail.
How, then, was Israel supposed to take comfort from nachamu? Chasidic tradition answers that question by looking at the whole phrase, nachamu ami, “Take comfort, my people.” Note the word “my.” Why didn’t God just say, “Take comfort,” or “Take comfort, Israel?” Why specify, “My people?” “The people needed most to hear ‘My,’” says Rabbi Boruch, grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov. “They needed God’s assurance, ‘You remain My people. Even in your grief. I will not abandon you. You are not alone.’”
The ultimate terror is that we will be left alone, abandoned when we are most vulnerable. That may be why our own moment of dying frightens us; why we miss others whose presence was part of our everyday life when they were alive; and why it is so cruel for our best friends to stop calling if we do not quickly recover from mourning the death of those we loved. Here is our worst nightmare coming true: we are left doubly alone — abandoned first by the one who dies, and then again by those still living whom we thought we could count on!
So along comes Shabbat Nachamu with the kindest words we will ever read: “We are never alone.”
In Song of Songs, God says to Israel, Dodi li va’ani lo, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” — words of the pact that binds God to us forever. Elsewhere, God promises. Erashtikh li l’olam, “I will betroth you forever!” (Hosea 2:21). Forever!
When our loved ones die, God never says, “Move on.” Instead, we hear, “Take comfort. I am yours and You are mine. I betroth you forever. Look for me, therefore, even when you grieve, for I am there, somewhere, somehow, at your side.”
People report the signs of God’s presence in subtle ways: momentary tranquility in the still of night; or a glimpse of a larger mystical truth, our kinship with all that is. More immediately, when friends do manage to remain loyal, we may feel God’s touch in their continuing embrace; see God’s reflection in their eyes. A hint of God may be found where we least expect it: a split-second’s certainty that our loneliness, though painful, is not the final word.
Nachamu’s message is all we have to give, but it is enough: not advice, but “being there,” and saying, like God, “You are not alone. God waits with you, patiently understanding what you go through. And so do we. From that, Nachamu, ‘Take comfort.’”
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.