Tradgedies We Don't Forget
Shabbat Nachamu 5780 Lessons in Nichumim from one of Israel's Toughest Mothers
This past Tisha B’Av following our Darchei Noam Eichah reading, I Zoomed in to Beth Israel in Berkeley to hear what my old boss and inspiration Rabbi Yonatan Cohen had to say. I was not disappointed. During his introductory remarks, Rabbi Cohen cited the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav David Rabinovitch, discussing the tragedy of losing two students in the infamous 2014 kidnapping of three Israeli teens. When asked how he and the yeshiva had been able to cope with the loss, he responded: lo avarnu mizeh, nichnasnu lazeh. - We did not get over it. We entered into it. Like all tragedies, Tisha B’Av is not something we ever get over. At least, not until a future divine intervention powerful enough to turn Tisha B’Av into a festival. Rather, we lean into it year after year. Even on Shabbat Nachamu, we are still leaning into Tisha B'Av. The days ahead are not an exercise in sitting back and letting Hashem, meat, wine, haircuts, music and warm showers comfort us. The ‘nichumim’ we experience includes an active component, something for us to do in addition to that which we hope Hashem will do for us. The key lies with the opening phrase of our haftorah, “Nachamu nachamu ami” – Be comforted, be comforted my people...” That phrase formally kicks off the Shiva D’nechemta – seven weeks of consolation culminating with Rosh Hashanah – but as we well know, the weeks building up to the Yamim Nora’im are anything but a seven-week spa package of comfort! Nachamu nachamu is a call to action. How so? The Gemara (Berachot 5b) has an unusual statement:
אַבָּא בִּנְיָמִין אוֹמֵר: שְׁנַיִם שֶׁנִּכְנְסוּ לְהִתְפַּלֵּל. וְקָדַם אֶחָד מֵהֶם לְהִתְפַּלֵּל, וְלֹא הִמְתִּין אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ. וְיָצָא. טוֹרְפִין לוֹ תְּפִלָּתוֹ בְּפָנָיו...
Abba Binyamin says: If two people enter (a shul) to pray, and one began praying before the other and did not wait for the other person and left, his prayer is torn up in his face. What is so egregious about the actions of the person who exits? Must he wait around all day for his pious peer to finish davening? The straightforward understanding of this text suggests that the person left behind will lose concentration for fear of having to walk home alone, a potentially dangerous situation. The consequences are therefore visited upon the first person for having made such a callous or thoughtless decision to exit. Rabbi Yehonasan Eibeschitz (1690-1764) offers a novel read of this passage. He suggests the two people in the Gemara represent two aspects of one person at prayer. There is the physical aspect of davening and there is the thoughtful, emotive, intentional aspect better known as kavanah. "This is the meaning of the Gemara, two who enter to pray – this means the mouth and the heart. And if one of them exits, this being the heart, and it leaves his prayer and what remains is the mouth without heart – such a prayer is torn up in his face and is not accepted." Rav Eibeshitz relates this Gemara to a midrash often cited on Shabbat Nachamu to explain the haftorah’s dual language: Nachamu nachamu - B’nai Yisrael sinned doubly and were punished doubly and shall be consoled doubly. (Midrash Eichah Rabbah 1) Rav Eibeshitz inquires how the midrash could state B’nai Yisrael sinned “doubly” when in fact, we sinned against the entirety of Torah! His answer: ...With these two, Bnai Yisrael sinned, meaning with the lustful wandering of their hearts and with the deeds of their limbs. In this way they committed every sin in the world. According to Rav Eibeshitz’s understanding of the midrash, we sinned on a vast scale in heart and in deed. If so, then nachamu nachamu implies a similar mechanism of comfort, something perhaps that involves our own hearts and deeds. Rav Moshe Feinstein develops a similar line of thinking that also suggests our ultimate consolation will involve our very own thoughts and deeds. Regarding the aforementioned midrash, he writes: It seems the first (offense) is the sin itself - that which they trespassed against the word of Hashem. And the second (offense) is that they didn’t consider it a sin at all, rather they think they are doing good! Consequently, our double nichum will be a correction of these dual offenses. First, Hashem will “speak to the heart of Jerusalem," teaching us right from wrong and revealing the truth. Only afterwards can we be brought back to the path of righteousness. Our consolation, therefore, comes about through two steps requiring effort. We must first find it within ourselves to be open to the message. Subsequently, we must reorient ourselves towards a life consistent with that message. It is a reformation of spirit and deed. Hashem might 'lend us a hand' in the endeavor, but it is by no means a handout, freebie, or a spa of comfort. Four years after the kidnapping of her son Eyal, Iris Yifrach, mother turned activist granted an interview to the JTA describing her transformation in the aftermath of the trauma. With unfathomable strength, Iris spoke of the first Shabbat she experienced once the initial whirlwind of activity had subsided. “I saw his empty place at the Shabbat table, and that’s when it hit me,” Yifrach said. “I realized that we needed to do something to pick up the pieces.” There is probably no true consolation for Iris or the other families - but that Shabbat began her process of nichumim, a process that has helped the Yifrach family regain their footing by dint of brutal determination, spirit, and action. Shabbat shalom.