Somewhere along the way, I internalized the story that to seek comfort, or to be comforted, is both a weakness and a betrayal of the work I try to do to build a more just and equitable world. I came to understand the reality of my material comfort as an obligation to dismiss my own grief, my own sadness, my own anger with Gd.
Yet, I am grieving and I am sad and I am angry with Gd. This week, it is the climate crisis that motivates my anger the most clearly. Fire particulates that have arrived in Boston from the northwest, clogging my lungs, remind me of the exhaustion that comes without being able to breathe. I could continue — people close to me struggling with addiction, the continuation of the Tokyo Olympics as a perfect example that our global community has completely lost any sense of moral center (did we ever have one?), and wondering about my own professional life.
I know that I am not alone in these feelings, that I am not alone in my diminishing ability to engage in the cognitive dissonance that has become necessary to live with the deep iniquity and trauma that being human inflicts on our souls and bodies. I know this because last week, on Tisha B’Av, I joined over 300 other people to learn about Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s 40 Days of Teshuvah action and to commit to continue to confront anti-black racism in my life and our communities. I sat at my kitchen table, my eyes welling up with tears. I sat with a sense of shame that I have not yet learned to let go of, trying to home them back.
The Talmud teaches (Berakhot 32b) that since the destruction of the Temple the gates of prayer have been locked but the gates of tears have remained open. All year long we have had access to Gd through the spiritual technology of crying, through our tears, our raw emotion. Beginning on Rosh Hashanah we ask that the gates of compassion, of justice, of teshuva, open for us. Our longing for other modes of connection with the divine is central to the spiritual themes of the season.
As we move from mourning to the possibility and celebration of a new year, we are guided by a cycle of seven haftarot, prophetic readings, on consolation. If last week, on Tisha B’Av, our spiritual work was to open and give voice to grief of crash, the spiritual work of the next seven weeks is to open to comfort and consolation as we prepare to stand with our communities before Gd on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם
Comfort, comfort, My people, said your Gd
This Shabbat, the haftarah opens with this line and continues with a prophecy that triumphs Gd’s return to Jerusalem. At first, I read this line and it’s context as centering the experience of Gd’s people, that we are the ones who need to be consoled. Gd, through Isaiah, is speaking to the exiled Jews, after all. There is a disconnect between this reading and the Hebrew grammar. The verb,נַחֲמ֥וּ / comfort, is in the plural imperative and the noun,עַמִּ֑י / my people, in the singular. Perhaps the people are present as witnesses to the consolation of another.
Pesikta Rabbati, a midrash crafted between 600-900 BC in Palestine, teaches:
נחמו נחמו עמי אמר ר’ ברכיה הכהן נחמוני נחמוני עמי בנוהג שבעולם כרם אם יהיה לאדם ויבואו ליסטים ויקצצו אותה למי מנחמים לכרם או לבעל הכרם וכן לאדם יהיה בית ויבואו הליסטים וישרפו אותו למי מנחמים לבית או לבעל הבית אתם כרם שלי כרם ה’ צבאות בית ישראל (ישעיה ה’ ז’) ובא נבוכדנצר והחריב אותו והגלה אתכם ושרף את ביתי אני הוא צריך להתנחם
“Comfort, comfort, My people (Isaiah 40:1),” say R’ Berakhiah the Kohane, should be read, “Comfort Me, comfort Me, O My People.” In the way of the world, if a man owns a vineyard and robbers come and cut it down, who is to be comforted, the vineyard or the owner of the vineyard? And so, too, if a man owns a house and robbers come and burn it down, who is to be comforted, the house or the owner of the house? You are My vineyard. But Nebuchadnezzar came and, having destroyed it, exiled you and burned My Temple; it is I that need to be comforted.
This midrash frames the opening line of Isaiah 40 as Gd’s request for comfort. Why does Gd need comforting and what can that open for us, created in Gd’s image? Gd has lost Gd’s house, the central locus of Gd’s presence in the world. While Gd’s presence fills the whole world, it was in the Temple where Gd was connected to us, Gd’s partners in creation.
There is another option. The root, n-ch-m, translated here and above as “comfort,” can, in the niph-al (passive) binyan, mean to be sorry, to regret, and to reconsider. We probably don’t need the dictionary to tell us that to be in a state of wanting comfort is the flip of feeling sorry or regretful. Perhaps Gd regrets some part of Gd’s role in the destruction of the Temple and the exile. I imagine, if I may, that regret being located either in regretting the creation of humanity at all or regretting allowing the conditions for the destruction to emerge. The regret might also be an expression of Gd’s longing to reconnect with Gd’s people. This matches the general theme of the rest of the haftarah, in which the source of consolation is ultimately Gd’s return to Jerusalem and reassertion of Gd’s position on an eternal throne.
Reading through the full text of the haftarah, I am struck by the images that evoke the central liturgical piyyut, Unataneh Tokef, Gd as shepherd and people as withering grass, as well as the emphasis on the renewal of Gd’s sovereignty, a central theme of Rosh HaShanah. In Unetaneh Tokef we are reminded of three ways we can create new possibilities in our new year: tefillah / prayer, tzedakah / just giving, and teshuva / holy reparations or sacred repair. In his sermon, I Do Regret, Rabbi Aaron Alexander teaches: “Regret. It’s difficult. It’s also divine. And it’s definitely essential for any kind of authentic repentance–of any potential change in course, any return home, wherever it is.”
The cycle of crash, consolation, and opening to new possibility is neither linear nor reserved for this moment in our liturgical cycle. Yet, this moment calls our attention to it and provides us the opportunity to practice opening to grief, naming regret, seeking comfort, and engaging in teshuva, sacred repair. Our individual comfort need not be a source of shame, but rather, like all things, a place to connect with the spark of divinity / humanity within us and a foundation for seeing new possibilities.