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.
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