The Consolation of Nachamu

Delivered at Mt. Sinai’s seudah shelishit Shabbat Nachamu 2007/5767

After revisiting and recounting the horrors of Jerusalem’s destruction on 9 Av, we begin the process of healing and consolation. To this end, the sages instituted reading the seven haftarot of consolation beginning with Yeshayahu 40 and the appropriate introduction “nachamu, nachamu ami” commonly translated as “comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.” But for those who have experienced tragedy, there is little apparent in this haftara which would be considered comforting. Most of the haftara praises God or extols God’s superiority and might, which for those who experienced the hurban would be hesitant to deny, and few would turn to in times of crisis.

The closest we find to true words of consolation are limited to the introductory verses of 40:1-5 and 1-2 in particular, but here too the nature of the consolation is unclear. 40:2 exhorts:

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call out to her

  1. that1 her service has been fulfilled
  2. that her sin has ended
  3. that she has taken from God’s hand double [the measure] from all her sins

At first glance none of these three statements would seem to be terribly comforting either. The first description of a “service fulfilled” (mal’ah tz’va’ah) implies a discharge or freedom from obligation.2 Such a dispensation seems incongruous with the fact that Jerusalem was destroyed because the people did not meet their obligations. The second statement is also puzzling, for if the sin has been completed and the spiritual accounts balanced, then redemption should be immediately forthcoming.3 The final statement is perhaps the most perplexing as a statement of consolation of all. Not only does this describe a severe imbalance in Divine Justice, but I doubt anyone experiencing tragedy would take comfort in knowing that at least he is being punished double for what he deserved.4

I believe the first step to understanding these verses lies in the word menahem. The root NHM does appear elsewhere in the context of consolation from mourning (Bereishit 5:29, 37:35), but is also used to describe regret (Bereishit 6:6-7, Shemot 13:17). Or to be more precise, the root NHM is used to describe a reversal of one’s desires or emotions (Bereishit 24:67, 27:42, 50:21). While such changes may be gradual, they are usually prompted by a specific factor, be it an event or an idea, but it is a singular moment in time in which a person’s attitude changes. In the context of mourning, Being menahem is different from being misameah – we do not “cheer up” but we console. We try to find the tipping point by which a mourner’s state of mind can shift from melancholy to beginning the healing process.

To this end, Yeshayahu gives us three common examples of how we can change our outlook in times of need. The first statement of mah’ah tz’va’ah consoles by offering closure it is the acceptance that we did everything we could have in our power and ability as opposed to regretting what we could have done or being overwhelmed by the never ending burdens of assumed obligations.5

Similarly, when we are faced with successive setbacks, we can wonder when our suffering will come to an end or we can speculate as to what we did to deserve our painful situation. Perhaps our sin was so great that it is hard to see when our suffering will end and instead of anticipating the future we dread the inevitable impending tragedy, which of course we deserve. Yeshayahu’s response that “our sin has ended” allows us to come to terms with whatever our past might have been, and approach the present and future with a new hope.

Finally and most importantly, Yeshayahu’s third statement does not state that God delivered a double punishment, but rather that we took (lakcha) a double punishment from God. This is a surprisingly common occurrence for while everyone faces adversity, it is not unusual for people to exaggerate their situation. Someone who gets dumped may immediately jump to the conclusion that s/he will never get married. Someone who does poorly in a college class may start thinking how s/he will never get into graduate school, be stuck working a menial unfulfilling job, and ultimately will waste their life. This sort of negative self talk can make an unfortunate situation even worse than it is, compounding any adversity which may have been originally intended.

To acheive such comfort and to truly turn the emotional corner, one cannot simply know these things, but they must be received by our hearts. The Midrash tells us that the heart controls so much of our being: “the heart sees (Kohelet 1:17), the heart speaks (ibid), the heart knows (Mishlei 14:10), the heart hears (I. Melachim 3:9), the heart stands (Yehezkel 22:14), the heart falls (I. Shmuel 17:32), the heart walks (II. Melachim 5:26), the heart cries (Eicha 2:18), and the heart gladdens (Tehillim 16:9), and the heart comforts (Yeshayahu 40:1-2)” (Pesikta D’R. Kahana 17:2). Once we have internalized these messages we can not only begin to heal, we can then hear the voice of God in the wilderness, and once again turn towards path of God without the obstacles which we have placed in our way (Yeshayahu 40:30-4).

Of course to achieve such a change is not a simple matter and rarely does it occur in one sitting. Sometimes it takes multiple times for us to internalize these gentle messages of comfort.
Nachamu, nachamu ami.

1. Following JPS I’m translating the word ki to mean “that” as in this is what you shall say as the words of consolation. However, the word ki may alternatively be translated as “because,” meaning these are the reasons for comfort. In either case, there is an indication that these three statements have some implication of consolation.
2. Many translations describe mal’ah tzeva’ah as the time of exile has been fulfilled or following Safam, “done is the term of punishment.” Neither is explicit in the text and the word tzeva’ah draws comparisons to military service. Also consider Yirmiyahu’s ambiguities regarding the nature of the earlier covenants (11, 31:30).
3. In fairness, it is not exactly clear when this chapter was written and it seems out of place in the context of Yeshayahu.
4. Several midrashim address the question of divine injustice by saying that the Jews’ sin was double, the punishment was double (kiflayim mikol hatoteha, and as such the consolation was double (nachamu, nachamu). See Eicha Rabba 1:8, Midrash Zuta Eicha 1:14, Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 17, and Midrash Tanhuma Devarim 1. However, taking into account simple mathematics, if each aspect was doubled then there is ultimately a 1:1 ratio, thus defeating the purpose of doubling. Furthermore 40:2 states that regardless of the size of the sin, the punishment was double from all of her sins.
5. Compare with M. Avot 2:16

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