This Shabbos is one of comfort - Shabbos Nachamu, so named for the opening words of the Haftarah: נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי - The Navi is instructing us to be comforted in the wake of the devastation of Tisha B’av. But what is this comfort? What are we supposed to feel?
“Making someone comfortable” means something very different when you hear it in a nursing home. There, the sadness of comfort becomes very real. I can still vividly recall the first time I asked what what “making him comfortable” meant, and since that day, I can no longer feel comfortable with being comfortable.
Comfort, as we know it, is a fairly recent consideration of humanity. For most of our history, life was decidedly uncomfortable. Heat and cold were aspect of nature to contend with, to mitigate if possible. Sickness, ailments, pain and aging, were parts of life.
But in the past century, we have moved beyond mitigating these discomforts. Indeed, with the wonders of modern science and technology, we have all but eradicated the major discomforts of our ancestors. And now comfort reigns supreme. Comfortable beds, shoes, clothes, seats, cars, shuls, schools and couches.
This is a good thing. Without the constant barrage of daily frustration, we now have the time, headspace, and wherewithal to devote ourselves to loftier pursuits on both personal and national levels. Right?
But if we’re honest, we know know that’s not true.
A number of years ago, a close friend of mine told me the story of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who made her way to the United States. With the characteristic perseverance of one who could not allow Hitler to win, and despite her poverty, she raised her children with to value life, learning and the Jewish nation.
At some point in the mid sixties, after a number of a years, saving penny by penny, she had finally saved up enough to buy an electric washing machine. On that day, she called her children together and told them, “Now that I no longer need to spend all day at home - we’re going to the library. If we have free time, it’s to be used for learning.”
But we don’t live that way. I’ve often joked to my talmidim that when the aliens land, they’ll see us carrying these rectangular slabs in our pockets. They’ll ask us “what are those?” And we’ll respond “These are smart phones. They give us the ability to connect to our friends, and families, and almost anyone on the planet. With these marvelous devices we can access all of human knowledge. We can use them to learn skills, languages, and art.” “Amazing,” they will say. “And what do you use them for?” “Netflix, Lashon Hara and memes...”
Why do we live our lives with such disaffection for our own values? I hesitate to say it: But I think we have completely misunderstood the meaning of comfort. We imagine that it means the absence of pain as an inherent value. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Rashi (בראשית ו:ו) tells us the meaning of the word נחמה. It doesn’t mean the removal of pain. It means:
נהפכה מחשבתו ... וכן כל לשון ניחום שבמקרא לשון נמלך מה לעשות
A change of mind, of perspective... Every נחמה in the Torah means a consideration of what to do now.
To illustrate, in our world: COVID has presented us with unprecedented disruptions to our lives, our families, our school, shuls and Yiddishkeit. Attempting comfort mean trying to accept this new reality, and work within it. To let go of our previously held notions of the importance of community, of Tefillah B’Tzibur, of Talmud Torah B’Rabim, of welcoming guests, and visiting the sick.
But Nechama argues that we should be profoundly uncomfortable with this new reality. We should long for, work for, yearn for the return of events and gatherings that are so meaningful to our lives. And yet we must continue un-paralyzed to do the best we can with the state of the world in which we live.
As it pertains to the Churban and Tisha B’Av: The deepest tension in our lives must be to make our lives as elevated and perfected as possible and yet still never give up on the dream of Yerushalayim. To work on making our communities greater, and yet be ready leave it all in moment for the chance of Geulah.
Comfort heralds a mixture of resilience and acceptance. But at it’s core, comfort is about resignation. Nechama, on the other hand profoundly and boldly demands responsiveness and responsibility. Nechama asks us to live with the tension of doing our best in a broken world, while never capitulating to reality. Or in the words of Dylan Thomas, Nechama asks us to “Rage against the dying of the light.”
In a few days, we will celebrate the mysterious holiday of Tu B’av - the 15th day of the month of Av. There are many reasons for this holiday, but the most peculiar is the opinion of Rav Menasya (תענית לא,א׳), who explained: They called the fifteenth of Av the day of the “Breaking of the Axes”, as from this date onward no more trees were cut down for the Mizbeach (since it was the rainy season).
There are many questions to ask on this Gemara. Why is stopping to chop wood for the Mizbeach a cause for celebration? Furthermore why break the axes? And why celebrate the breaking?
To understand this enigma, consider the Medrash in Bereishis Rabba (5:10) telling us the story of the creation of steel:
When Hashem created steel, the trees began to tremble. Said the steel to them: "So long as none of you serve as my handle, no tree will be harmed."
The Maharal (Chidushei Agados Sanhedrin 39b) explains this Medrash:
כי רגיל הוא שפורענות יבא על האדם מצד עצמו - Most of the calamities that happen to a person, come as a result of themself.
Essentially, the Maharal is teaching us, there are only two ways to respond to challenges: Either we respond with resignation or responsibility. Either we see ourselves as the unfortunate tree that must contend with being chopped. Or as the wood that built our own axe. Are we trying to be comfortable, or achieve Nechama? Comfort numbs us; Nechama heightens our senses.
This decision effects every part of our lives, from our careers, to raising our children. From marriage to davening. From success to failure. This decision effects the way that we look at everything - is this failure a simply a challenge or a new reality? Is this year a speed bump or a road block on the way to Redemption?
Nechama doesn’t mean pretending everything is great. It means choosing to respond to everything with greatness.
Rav Kook writes in Oros HaTechiyah (פרק ה׳):
גדולים אנחנו וגדולות הנה משוגותינו ובשביל כך גדולות הן צרותינו, וגדולים גם תנחומותינו
We are so great and so great are our meshugasim (our mistakes). And because of this, our pain is great. And how great will be our Nechama.
If Hashem has given our generation a level of material comfort that humanity has never seen before, we dare not waste it on “making ourselves comfortable.” We should leave Tisha B’av with deep discomfort, but not despair. We should commit ourselves to changing our reality. That’s true meaning of Shabbos Nachamu. Be comforted with the knowledge that you can fix this. But please, never be comfortable.
There is a new marker of time in our home. My children call it BC - Before Corona. “Remember Before Corona when we went to shul?” “One time, Before Corona, when I went to my friend’s house...” “A long time ago, Before Corona when I was at school...”
It’s hard for adults. But for kids, it’s heartbreaking. What we would give to go back to normal again? Because this, whatever this is, is not normal. And now it’s slowly dawning on us that normal is far, far away. Whatever school will be this year, it won’t be normal. Whatever Shul will be for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur this year, it won’t be normal. Neither will malls, or vacations or travel. None of it will be like it was BC - Before Corona. None of it will be normal.
But what is normal? It’s a hard concept to pin down. Now they say we have a “new normal”. But how long until “new normal” is just “normal”. What’s the gestation for a “normal” until it’s no longer new? And is there any objective measure that makes last years normal more normal than now? Other than familiarity, of course?
I share these questions with you because this week, this Shabbos, we are in the darkest time of our year. These days from Rosh Chodesh Av until Tisha B’av are days set aside to consider what normal is really supposed to be. And how far we are from it. But the truth is, it’s been a few thousand years since anything was normal.
The story is told of Reb Menachel Nachum of Chernobyl, the Meor Einayim (1770-1837). During one of his many travels he once stayed at the inn of a simple Jew. As was his practice, Reb Nachum woke up every night at midnight to say Tikun Chatzos (the prayer to mourn for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash).
That night in the inn, far away from his family and community, Reb Nachum lost himself in words of the Tefillah and began to cry over the ongoing suffering of our people.
Hearing the crying, the inn-keeper, woke up and quickly ran to Rav Nachum’s room to see if everything was alright. “Rebbe, I heard you crying, is something wrong?” Rav Nachum responded, “I was crying over the destruction of the Temple.”
But the inn keeper, a simple man who was raised with little education asked: “Rebbe, I am not familiar with the Temple or its destruction.” Reb Nachum’s eyes lit up as he proceeded to explain to the inn-keeper about the Bais HaMikdash and what it meant to our people. He spoke about Yerushalayim, and David HaMelech, of prophecy and nationhood, of Moshiach and the yearning to return. And he when concluded his explanation, Reb Nachum turned and said, “My dear brother, don’t despair, Moshiach will come soon and we will rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. But tell me when Moshiach comes, will you be ready to travel to the land of Israel?”
The inn-keeper, ever pragmatic, responded, “Rebbe, this is a very important question. I have to ask my wife.” So at 3am, the inn-keeper shook his wife awake and explained to her the conversation he had with their peculiar and saintly guest. He told her about the Beis HaMikdash and Israel and Moshiach, and that when he comes, please God soon, the Rabbi says we can go! For the very first time, this Jewish couple was talking about Jewish destiny and their place in it.
But a while later the inn-keeper returned to Rebbe and said: “Rebbe, my wife and I discussed your generous offer, and she makes a good point. We cannot go to the Land of Israel when Moshiach comes, because we have invested our whole life and livelihood in this inn. We have cows, chickens and horses and a host of responsibilities. What will be with them if we just get up and leave?”
The Rebbe would not relent. “My dear friend, he continued, “There is so much anti-Semitism, the Tartars, the Cossacks – every day there is someone else who wants to kill you. Forget about the animals and the inn and promise me that when Moshiach comes you will come with us to the Land of our Ancestors”.
The inn-keeper was all to familiar with Jew hatred and the Rebbe’s words washed over him like a splash of cold water. “Rebbe” he said, “I understand – let me go discuss it with my wife.”
The inn-keeper returned a few minutes later, “Rebbe we discussed it, and my wife has a fantastic idea. Listen to this,” he said excitedly. “When Moshiach comes, you can arrange for him to take the Tartars and Cossacks to the Land of Israel, and then we’ll be able to stay here in peace!”
Reb Nachum cried that night saying that the deepest devastation of exile is when we don’t even want to go home.
The Shela HaKadosh, Rabbi Yeshaya HaLevi Horowitz writes (סוף עשרת הדברות, מסכת סוכה, דרך חיים):
“I must tell you what burns deepest in my heart: When I see Jews building their exquisite houses and setting up a permanent home in this world, in a land of impurity. And of course, it is true, that the Talmud tells us that one day the homes of tzadikim will be lifted to Eretz Yisrael. But there are so many who are building here, wanting nothing more than to leave a legacy and inheritance for their descendants. It seems to me, God forbid, that they have forgotten the meaning of Redemption, they have forgotten the meaning of home.”
Home is Eretz Yisrael. Home is Yerushalayim. Home is Jewish Sovereignty, with peace and safety and security. Home is dignity. Home is prosperity. Home is the ability and desire to keep the Torah, to value the Torah, and to uphold the values of the Torah and never to be afraid.
This Shabbos, Moshe tells us: רב לכם שבת בהר הזה פנו וסעו לכם - It’s been long enough that you’re settled at this mountain. It’s time to move on.
The Kli Yakar explains:
הסבו פניכם אל הארץ וסעו לכם אל עצמות מקור שלכם כי משם נוצר חומר של אדה״ר כדרך שאמר לאברהם לך לך
Moshe is telling them... Turn your attention to the Land. To the essence of your source. From that soil Adam HaRishon was created. Like Hashem told Avraham: Go to yourself.
This year Hashem has flung us up into the air. And I don’t want to land where we started. I don’t want the new normal or the old normal. This week, this year, more than ever, I want to go home.
Jew hatred is on the rise in the USA. Or perhaps, it would be more correct to say that noticeable acts of Anti-semitism are on the rise. We all know that Jew hatred has never ceased. It has morphed and shifted and hidden behind various guises: Anti-Zionism, privilege, intersectionality, wokeness etc... And of course, when this Oldest Hate raises its ugly head, our job is to call it out for what it is. We need to take note, to raise our voices.
We are obligated to take a stand and call out the inconsistencies in our culture’s evaluation of Anti-Semitism: the only crime that cancel-culture seems to tolerate. We know the stakes are high, not just for us, but for American society in general. History has borne out a singular truth: Sanctioning Jew hatred has always lead to the moral decay of a nation.
And so we take to our keyboards, our phones and our feeds. We link and share and post and comment. Some of us, have the power of connections to people in positions of power. Some of us have media connections. But in reality, there is the nagging reality of a sense of hopelessness. We know that we are yelling into our own echo chambers with little effect on the views of general society.
How ironic that a people who allegedly control the world media, should struggle to educate this country about the worse calamity in our history. In January this year Pew Research found that: Fewer than half of Americans (43%), know that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic political process. And a similar share (45%) know that approximately 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
So we put down our phones and dejectedly close our laptops. We wonder if and when something, anything will change. But at least we’re doing something about it? At least we’re making a noise, doing what we can, how ever small that might be? Right?
I don’t think so.
But before I say more, please,don’t misunderstand me. Anti-semitism is real and evil. And we must do everything in our power to raise awareness, provide education and ensure that our communities are protected. But fighting Jew hatred is not the primary Avoda of our generation.
The Maharal (נצח ישראל פרק יד) explains that all of Jewish history can be divided into two categories. Times when we are in control of our own destiny, and when we are subject to the control of others.
For many generations, we were not in control of our own destiny. Subjugated by the nations of the world, we fought valiantly to preserve Jewish lives and traditions with immense self sacrifice. And despite the countless casualties and tragedies, we have emerged victorious. The Avoda of a generation of subjugation is clear: Fight the Anti-Semites with all of our might; spiritually, physically and politically.
These were the generations of the Exodus from Egypt, of the Destruction of Yerushalayim. Those that fought to survive the Crusades, Tach V’Tat, the Inquisition, the Pogroms and the Holocaust. Their Avoda was fighting Anti-Semitism.
But this is not the Avoda of our generation. We are the generation that comes next: The generation that wandered the desert. Our food might not be provided from Heaven, our water may not be from a rock. But undeniably, we are living in a time of unprecedented prosperity - even with Coronavirus!
So what was the role of the generation of the Midbar? And what is our purpose?
The Ohr HaChaim (במדבר לג:א ועיין בספר ארץ צבי ע׳ קצב) explains: At each station in the Midbar there were internal challenges to overcome. Sure, there were still wars with Amalek, Sichon, Og, Moav and Midyan. But for the vast majority of the forty years in the desert, the Jewish people were working on themselves. They were refining their character traits; becoming better parents, better children, better spouses and better friends. As they travelled from place to place, new issues arose that required them to reign in their tempers, practice empathy and deepen their trust in Hashem.
The Gemara (ברכות י״ז א׳) tells us that after Rabbi Alexandri finished his Sh’moneh Esrei he would add a short Tefillah: “Master of the Universe, we want to do what You want us to do. So who is stopping us? The Yetzer Hara and the subjugation of the nations of the world. Please save us from them.”
That is to say: We face enemies from within ourselves and from without. It is tempting to pour our efforts into fighting Anti-semitism, but that’s the side-bar of our generation. The real work is fighting the enemies within.
The Magen Avraham (או״ח תכח ס״ק ח׳) writes that when we read the beginning of Parshas Masei in Shul, listing the forty-two camps in the desert, we should not break in the middle, but read them through. Why? These forty-two stations allude the forty-two letter name of Hashem. The Sifsei Tzadik of Piltz explains: The character refining challenges of the Midbar brought an immense light of Godliness into world. Each stop was necessary, and by reading them we can learn to traverse our own challenges as well.
This work is not only for those who are politically connected. It is not reserved for the financial elites, or those with powerful social networks. This is the Avoda of each and every one of us. If we want to see an end to Jew hatred, we should fix the brokenness in ourselves so that we can fix the brokenness in the world. And if the world is fixed, then redemption will come.
As Yirmiyahu (ד:א-ב פר׳ רש״י) says at the end of our Haftara:
If you return to Hashem, and if you rid yourself of your dirt, you will escape exile... Then the nations of the world will bless each other to be like you, and their greatest praise will be “to be like a Jew.”
The blogospheres are filled with doomsday predictions. American Judaism will not survive this pandemic. Institutions will shutter, bank accounts will run dry. Jewish education will flounder. I hear the concern. Our institutions are indeed in uncharted and precipitous territory. But Yiddishkeit itself can and will continue, because there is one tried and true way to ensure the survival of our communities. This epiphany struck me this past Tuesday morning as I strapped my five year old and two year into the car, getting ready for camp.
The two year looked at me and said “Abba, I can’t put my mask on.” “Don’t worry,” her already-masked-brother said, “I’ll help you put it on.” She sat still as he looped it over her ears. “Look Abba,” she said excitedly. “It has unicorns on it!”
Kudos to my wife for getting fun masks.
But fun masks aside, three weeks ago, this entire story would have sounded fantastical. Impossible. Ridiculous. Mask wearing is uncomfortable. And children are notorious for being annoying about uncomfortable things. But it’s not just my kids wearing masks. Pulling up to the car pool line at Camp Ruach, you will find child after child, backpack in tow, happily wearing their masks. Their teachers and counselors have affirmed the same thing. Overall, and against all prior intuition, kids are wearing masks.
And so I wonder: Why are all these children wearing their masks? Why are they not throwing tantrums and yelling about their discomfort? Why are they so amenable? Most importantly what can this teach us about education. I think their are four reasons.
1: The adults in their lives are wearing masks. This is easy and obvious. Parents, teachers and counselors are all wearing masks. Not all of them. Not all the time. But the culture around them is clearly mask-wearing. Kids absorb culture. Kids instinctively know what their parents think is important. Adults are the ones who define “normal” or “new normal” in the lives of our children. If mask wearing is modeled, then mask wearing is imitated. But many good things are modeled, and kids fight them. Why is this working?
2: Mask wearing expectations are clear and consistent; but encouraged with empathy. Our kids know: You get in the car, you put on your mask. It’s a routine, it’s an expectation. If you don’t have it, you can’t go to camp. There are no negotiations, no exceptions. But what happens if you forgot your mask? Don’t worry, we have a spare right over here. There’s no moral judgement for forgetting it. We’re not yelling at them for misplacing it. We’re all working towards ensuring that all kids are wearing masks as much as possible. This enables kids to meet expectations with confidence and not fear failure.
3: They know why they’re doing it. Or at least they know, the stakes are high. No, our kids do not have advanced knowledge of epidemiology. But they know that there’s something called Coronavirus that makes people sick. And that it kept them inside for longer than they want to remember. They know that the virus is invisible, and that people can give it to each other without knowing. And they know that masks help. That’s all they know. But it’s more than enough. Most importantly, they know that they don’t understand everything about it. But the stakes are high.
4: Finally; your mask is important. Our kids understand that nothing in the whole world can replace their mask. They know: If you don’t wear one, the whole system is a little bit worse, a little bit weaker. And since you care about other people, this is your way of showing your concern, so that they don’t get sick.
All of this adds to saying that our children have Emuna. They believe that there is a virus that they cannot see. They believe that wearing a mask is helpful. And they believe that their mask wearing is important. And all of this is true despite the discomfort and annoyance of wearing it!
Now, think of the challenges that we face in raising committed, connected, passionate Jewish children: “My son doesn’t want to put on his tzitzis/tefillin. My kids don’t want to wake up to daven on a Sunday. My daughter doesn’t want to wear skirts. My teens are obsessed with their phones. They don’t want to come to night seder. Do you want me to force them? That’s gonna make them hate Yiddishkeit! I want them to love Torah! I want them to be inspired!”
Ok I hear you. But let’s consider: What do the adults in their life do? Are the expectations clear? Are they communicated with empathy and patience or with judgement and frustration? Do our kids have any idea why Mitzvos are important? Do they know that their mitzvah is important for the Jewish people?
Note: None of this need to be 100% consistent (and that would be impossible). Nothing needs to be iron-clad. Sometimes even the best of role models mess up. Sometimes amazing teachers get frustrated and upset. Sometimes we just don’t know enough to explain the depths of reasoning of kashrus or tefillin or tzniyus. But my point is that in order for a this to work, you don’t need all of it all the time. Just most of it, most of the time. It doesn’t need to perfect. It needs to be real. And it doesn’t take that long to instill this basic Emuna! (So far, we’re only three weeks into camp, and they’ve got this down!)
So why don’t we treat Chinuch, Torah, Tefillah, Tzniyus etc... like mask wearing at camp?
I have a hunch. Perhaps it’s becuase mask wearing is new. We’re not coming at it with years of preprogrammed guilt and baggage and narishkeit, and weird voices of our own parents, teachers and rabbeim in our heads. We don’t feel guilty about the “not doing it when we were teenagers so how can I expect it of my kids...” We don’t rationalize “I figured it our when I was in college, so they will as well...” We know that it’s important, and that it’s difficult and uncomfortable. And we’re gonna do it.
Imagine if we treated Torah and Mitzvos that way. With that level of commitment, forgiveness and empathy. Then when we would speak about about inspiration, we’d be talking about infusing meaning into a world that exists, not simply willing something from nothing.
Perhaps another nation-wide shutdown is imminent. Perhaps our schools and shuls will close again. Perhaps some of our institutions will not survive this pandemic. But Yiddishkeit will survive if we let go of our own baggage and show our children how to take Judaism seriously, with love, empathy and responsibility.
On the 17th of Tamuz the Luchos were shattered. The letters flew upwards, and the tablets fell to the ground. If we want those letters back in our lives, then our job, right now, and always, is to hew new tablets of stone. That is to say: carve out rock solid commitments to the importance of Torah, Mitzvos and Klal Yisrael. And Hashem should inspire us, our children, and our communities with the letters of His Torah that once flew to the sky.
So goes the conversation almost every day: Rabbi, look. Seriously. Everyone is touching the same door handles. Breathing the same air. You think we’re six feet apart in the grocery store? They’re not taking temperatures there! And if you really care about the risk of coronavirus, why don’t you also tell elderly people to stay home during flu season? And we should shut the Shul for every health and mental health concern! Is alcoholism less of an issue? We should never have kiddush again? Why are we wearing masks in Shul? Why aren’t we insisting that people who come to Shul wear masks everywhere? If camps can open, then schools can open!
It’s a lot. It’s overwhelming. And every single measure we take is completely and entirely fraught with inconsistency. But what COVID-19 has brought to light is that we so desperately strive for a consistent set of principles to govern our behavior. And when consistency is impossible, we find ourselves flailing, tensions rise, and all progress is halted by “what-aboutisms”.
Truthfully, of course, we Jews have never lived a consistent life. Since Adam and Eve, everything is colored with both good and evil. Nothing makes perfect sense, and nothing is perfectly consistent. Rav Blachman told us once in Yeshiva “If Judaism was all or nothing, we would not be wearing Yarmulkas on our heads.”
This is this challenge of the Parah Aduma. It’s inconsistent. It makes impure people pure, and pure people impure. It doesn’t fit a defined rubric. So, as Rashi tells us at the beginning of the Parsha: ”The Yetzer Hara and the Nations of the World mock us for observing Parah Aduma.”
We know this mockery all too well. It’s the constant beat down and demonization of Israel in the media: “They say they’re a democracy, but what about (fill in the blank).” And this is also the voice inside our heads that says “Why are you coming to minyan or shiur today? Why are you saying Tehillim today? Why are you eating healthy today? Why are you going to the gym today? You know it’s unsustainable! You know you can’t keep it up...”
But the Torah screams out: No! So what if it’s inconsistent? So what if it’s imperfect? So what if we’re not going to get it right every time? Does that mean we shouldn’t do the right thing now? The drive for consistency should never lead us down a road of paralyzed nihilism.
And this is Rashi’s answer: לפיכך כתב בה חוקה, גזירה היא מלפני אין לך רשות להרהר אחריה - This world of Parah Aduma, of inconsistency, it’s a Chok. We can’t logic your way around it. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t know the right thing to do now.
The Medrash Rabba begins it's discussion of our Parsha with this point; quoting the Pasuk in Iyyov: מי יתן טהור מטמא לא אחד - “Who can derive purity from impurity? No one!” No one can resolve the inconsistencies. No one except for “The Echad” - The Only One, Hashem.
But the Yid HaKadosh of Pshischa would explain even further, that in order to draw purity from the world of impurity, in order to defeat the Yetzer Hara of “perfection”, all you need is לא אחד - One good "No!"
To the voices that shut us down for being inconsistent, we need to echo one good “No!” No, it’s not perfect. But that’s ok. We’re doing our best. Or even if we’re not doing our best, a little is better than nothing. So put the mask on. Do a mitzvah. Learn a Daf. Get to the gym. Say a Perek of Tehillim. Eat a healthy lunch. Make that phone call.
Or in the words of G. K. Chesterton: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."