I can still remember the feeling of the weight seeming to lift from my shoulders. It was the summer of 1986, and I had just returned my gear after four-and-a-half years in the Israeli army. I will never forget the incredible high that lifted my spirits as I realized that for the first time in years, I could do whatever I wanted, without worrying that I might get a call in the middle of the night.
My parents were in Israel that summer, and we had planned an outing for the next day. I still recall walking into my parents’ apartment in Jerusalem, with the smell of dinner cooking, and the promise of a real vacation ahead. And I remember sinking down into the easy chair in the living room as my father turned on the news. I figured all that pain and tension was finally behind me. It was a mistake I would never make again.
There had been a terrible ambush in the Jordan valley, and two soldiers had been killed. I could feel my gut contract as soon as the map came on the screen — this was the area of operations my battalion had just taken over a couple of days earlier. A Jordanian soldier had snuck over the border and ambushed a jeep patrol, cutting down two of our boys, and the second patrol that arrived on the scene was pinned down as well, until the deputy company commander finally arrived and took out the enemy soldier.
So the next day, instead of a picnic, we drove to the cemetery for Ronen Reichel’s funeral. He had been a sergeant in our unit, and I said goodbye to him along with everyone else just two days earlier, never imagining I would be standing over his grave only 48 hours later.
As long as I live, I will never forget the image of his mother, screaming, throwing herself on his coffin, begging him not to go.
Are there any words to say to a person under such circumstances? I remember her dulled, lifeless stare, full of pain and misery, passing over me after the burial, as if expecting me or anyone else around us to say something; and I remember averting my eyes, not knowing what to say. Even now, so many years later, if I ran into Ronen’s mother on the street, I still wouldn’t know what to say.
Are there any words with which one can comfort someone after such a loss?
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This Shabbat after Tisha B’av is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of consolation, when we are comforted after our terrible loss on Tisha B’av of both of our Temples. Indeed, this week’s Hatforah, from Isaiah, begins with the phrase, “Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami” (“Be comforted, be comforted, my people”).
But how can one be comforted after such a terrible loss? Two thousand years ago, in the year 70 CE, we watched our cities burned to the ground, hundreds of thousands of our people butchered, and many hundreds of thousands more sold as slaves. All of which was merely the prelude to 2,000 years of suffering — of crusades and inquisitions, pogroms and blood libels, and that final unspeakable horror, the Holocaust. How can a people such as ours, which has known such suffering, be comforted? What is the meaning of this nechama, this consolation?
It is no coincidence that the portion we always read on Shabbat Nachamu is Vaetchanan, which literally means “And I beseeched,” referring to Moshe’s heart-rending prayer beseeching G-d to allow him, mistakes notwithstanding, to enter the land of Israel with the children of Israel.
It is hard to decide which is more painful — Moshe’s pleading to be let into the land of his dreams, or G-d’s refusal to acquiesce. But most interesting is Moshe’s response to this refusal. The Torah seems to just change the topic!
After describing how he had pleaded before G-d to enter the land, and how G-d finally admonished him to cease speaking of this request and instead to install Yehoshua to take his place, Moshe immediately begins to exhort the Jewish people not to forget the Torah they have been given, and then launches into a repetition of the ten commandments, preceded by one of the most important sections of the Torah: the first chapter of the Shema.
But if this week’s portion is all about consolation, why is there no consolation mentioned for Moshe, immediately after he is denied his life’s wish of joining the Jewish people as they enter the land?
To understand this, perhaps we need to take a closer look at the concept of nechama as it appears in the Torah.
The first instance seems to be the birth of Noach, at the end of the first portion of the Torah, Bereishit. His father, Lemech, names him Noach because “Zeh Ye’nachameinu Mi’ma’aseinu” (“This one will comfort us from the actions of our hands”).
In the period preceding the flood, human behavior had reached an all-time low and violence filled the world. Lemech’s hope was that Noach would somehow turn things around, leading the world and humanity back onto the path of ethics and righteousness. If this was indeed Lemech’s hope, what then is the nature of this comfort?
Rashi there suggests that the way Noach will be a “comfort” to his generation, is not by leading them down the path of ethical excellence, but rather by inventing the plow! Why is plowing the field the source of comfort?
Even more confusing is the fact that nechama does not always mean comfort; sometimes, it seems to have a completely different connotation, as, for example, when G-d, in response to Moshe’s entreaties, decides not to destroy the Jewish people after the sin of the golden calf: “Vayinachem Hashem al ha’ra’ah asher diber la’asot le’amo” (“And Hashem relented, concerning the evil He had said He would visit upon His people”).
In this instance, G-d is not comforting the Jewish people (although it must certainly have been a comfort to them to know they would not be destroyed!) but rather changing His course of action.
• • •
What is the relationship between G-d changing His mind, and our being comforted? Perhaps the message of Shabbat Nachamu is that there really is no difference; our ability to be comforted depends on our decision, as it were, to change our minds or, more accurately, to change our perspective.
In a world gone mad, where violence was the rule, and wanton destruction of life and property the norm, Noach bursts onto the scene with the message that life is not about destruction, but about planting and building. Ultimately, if we are created then we must have a purpose, and every time we tap into that meaning and that purpose, we give meaning to creation all over again.
So Noach invents the plow, which is a vehicle for planting and growth, and belief in a future down the road. And this stands in direct contradiction to the wanton destruction all around him.
Noach had the potential to be a comfort to the world, because he offered the world, even such a world gone mad, a new perspective.
And this, as well, is what the Torah means when it suggests (Bereishit 24:67) that only after marrying Rivkah was Yitzchak comforted from the loss of his mother. It cannot mean that the loss loses any sense of pain, but rather that Yitzchak’s life takes on a whole new direction, as well as a renewed sense of purpose.
This might also explain G-d’s apparent change of heart after the sin of the golden calf. It goes without saying that G-d does not change. (If G-d is unlimited, there cannot be something G-d isn’t today that He will be tomorrow, nor something He is today that He wasn’t yesterday.) So the Torah cannot mean that G-d changes His mind! Rather, we change, and with that change in us, the entire world changes along with us.
It was not G-d that changed; rather, Moshe, in refusing to accept the view of a Jewish people’s imminent destruction, instead sees the world through completely different lenses. And, by changing the way he viewed the world, Moshe changed the way we looked at the world as well, thus changing our destiny as a people forever.
All of which leads us back to our portion this week. Moshe begs G-d to enter the land, because that is the way he has looked at the world till now. But when G-d refuses to allow Moshe to enter the land, Moshe’s response is to see the world in a completely different way. And that is actually Moshe’s nechama, or comfort. If G-d tells Moshe he is no longer meant to enter the land, then there must be a purpose to that decision.
Moshe’s immediate response to this decision is to understand that he must pass on the essence of Judaism and Torah to the next generation whose job it will be to build a homeland where that message can flourish without its being dependent on any one leader.
I do not know how a mother who has lost her beloved son can look at a different world, seemingly empty without the sights and sounds of the son she loved, and still see a world filled with purpose and meaning. I know only it is not our place to attempt to find answers to these painful questions, any more than we can attempt to offer the words that will comfort a person in such pain.
And it remains a mystery to me how a people, having lost so much, and after spending 2,000 years seeing death and cruelty all around them, could still find the strength to see a world full of goodness and purpose, choosing to build a state of Israel out of the ashes of destruction that was the Holocaust.
But it is certainly our nechama, this little country that we love so much.
Perhaps this is the nechama (the comfort) that awaits us after Tisha’ B’Av. We need to learn to change the way we look at each other, and at the world. And after commemorating the destructions that befell us on Tisha B’Av, horrors that seemed to happen because Jews could not learn to see what was beautiful in each other, maybe at long last it is time for us to see each other for the beautiful souls we are, and not get stuck on the different opinions that divide us.
A version of this column was published in 2013.