Coming Home from Israel in Exile: Shabbat Nachamu 5774

Isaiah Chapter 40:1-3: “Nachamu, nachamu ami, yomer Eleichem.  Dabru al-lev Yerushalayim. Comfort my people, comfort Them! Speak lovingly to Jerusalem.”

Every flight to Israel – especially on El Al – promises to be an experience. On the way there last week I overheard someone in the row next to me, kindly informing his neighbor that the Messiah was here. I thought of all the things I could say, but instead said nothing; I just took that as a compliment.

I’ve never been able to relate to literal Messianism. When I hear it, honestly, it sounds like a different religion.  That’s not to say that there’s no remnant of the messianic spirit within progressive Judaism; there most certainly is.  It’s just been distilled, reformed if you will, into a more universalistic, metaphysical notion of longing: the yearning for return, for Divine encounter, which is borne out of the loneliness known only in times of destruction. This is a core framework in Judaism, exile and return. This dichotomy is rudimentary— there’s simply no way to understand our text, our calendar, our Way, without keeping it in mind and in heart.  To be in relationship with the Divine, to be comforted by God, is inextricable with “return,” with coming home.

Every flight I’ve ever taken to the historical Homeland of the Jewish people has been packed with excitement, with anticipation.  But this flight, on a mission last week with 12 Reform Rabbis, was different.  I felt this looming sadness, as if I was on my way to visit a sick family member.  There was a pit in my stomach, like I was somehow not going up to the homeland, but rather descending into a sort of exile.

Even as I wrote these words, after returning home, and 24 hours after the ceasefire began I still felt not quite “home.”  The very memories of my trip seemed disoriented, “diasporized,” if you will, as I nevertheless tried to construct some kind of beit hamikdash, house of sacred meaning, from the brick and mortar of my encounters.

So rather than give you a political update or a one-sided blame-tirade, I’ll speak to what I know— various rooms that I saw in that house of meaning, subjectively, on the Israeli side of the border.

The first room, in the basement, in the South.  I heard about this room— from afar, and then up close.  When we landed we received instructions from our tour guide, Uri Feinberg (a former TI educator, whom many in this community know and love).  Uri told us that when we hear a siren we have somewhere between 15 seconds to around a minute to find this room, 15 seconds if we’re in the part of Israel called the “Gaza envelope”— that is, within a few miles from the border.  If we can’t find this room and we’re outside, he said, lie down on the ground face down. And wait.  After the siren ends, wait 10 minutes, to account for debris.

I entered this room with about 30 seconds to find it.  We were in Ashkelon, a charming beach city turned hi-tech haven, where nowadays sirens go off 20-30 times a day.  We all heard the first siren from the living room of an apartment. We were startled when we heard it; my heart skipped a beat. And then we calmly- sort of- walked to this room.  We waited.  Then we heard a “boom” – the Iron Dome intercepted the rocket. I let out an ever-so-slight sigh of relief, a teaspoon of comfort.

We waited 10 minutes and then went back.  Until a minute later, when we went through it again- siren, shelter, boom, sigh, wait, return.

The third time I sheltered was in a hotel in Tel Aviv at 2:30am. I shared the room with a handful of rabbis; a bunch of 20-somethings still up from partying in the city; a father with his newborn baby, sleeping on his shoulder. He rocked back and forth, comforting his son.  Still half asleep, for a moment I dreamt my way out of the room, back home, perhaps at the very the moment that Nicole was rocking our Caleb to sleep.  A brief, imaginary homecoming.

The shelter is now a familiar room in Israel.  The town of Sderot, which we walked through, is the place in Israel that knows it best, referred to informally as the “bomb shelter capital of the world.” The people of Sderot reached a point when they were so fed up with this room, in this house, that they brought this room outside— in sites across the town.  They even built one to serve as a playground, in the form of a snake. But when we saw that playground, it was empty— Sderot is empty. People either left or they don’t leave the illusory comfort of home.

Nachamu, Nachamu Ami.

In the second room sits an Israeli student-rabbi named Yael Karrie.  She’s the spiritual leader of the community of Shaar HaNegev. She noticed in her room there that the youth were seeing red everywhere, from the red alerts, the red of fighting, of fear, of bloodshed.  So she started up a project called “Reclaiming Red.”  She invited people to start sending pictures of things that that are red and joyful.  People from all around the world sent pictures, with messages of compassion.  Red flowers, red leaves, red window sills. In this room, Yael is coloring the walls, reclaiming life, affirming… a house of meaning, beit hamikdash. She’s doing what rabbis are supposed to do.  

 Nachamu, nachamu ami.

The third room, Uri’s congregation in Modi’in. In Modi’in, like everywhere else, everyone is a mess.  Everyone has kids or siblings or best friends who were fighting. In this room we met with Uri’s Rabbi, my friend Nir Barkin.  Nir’s son was off in an elite unit, a unit that lost many of its men in this conflict.  I gave him a hug, and I could see on his face, the anguish. There’s anguish in every room, and in this room, they prayed.

Nachamu, nachamu Ami.

The fourth room. I’d be remiss if I avoided this room, the room of diplomacy, of negotiations.  It’s a small room but most of the country prays for it.  In this room we met 4 members of the Israeli Parliament, and we met with a chief negotiator (who asked that we not share his name).  He offered his perspective on the predicament of negotiations.  He said, “for Hamas, the more losses of life, the greater the need for an achievement that justifies those losses— and the harder it is to achieve anything.”  We all replied, “wait – say that again,” so he repeated: “the more losses of life….the greater the need for an achievement that justifies those losses—and the harder it is to achieve anything.”  Meanwhile, Israel will only agree to a ceasefire “that does not strengthen or legitimize Hamas….”

The complexity of this conflict is near impossible to comprehend, but it’s easy enough to see, how tiny this room is, and why negotiations fall apart.

Nachamu, nachamu Ami.

The fifth room.  A room of mourning. Mount Hertzl. We stood by new graves. We said Qaddish for those who died.  We saw parents mourning their children.

In another part of this room we met with the IDF’s psychologist who heads up its notification units, people whose job it is to tell parents the worst news imaginable.  They are extraordinarily well-trained and systematic at their job; but I found no comfort in this room.
The sixth room.  A familiar face. A woman by the name of Talia Levanon. She heads up the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC), a group of 40 different organizations that provide direct care to people who suffer from trauma; they train caregivers working with trauma survivors; they consult with mayors and government officials to make sure that cities and towns are resourced to facilitate resilience—the “cutting edge,” of shleimut, healing, in mental-health.

Talia Levanon is a familiar face because she’s the one who flew with her team to Boston right after the marathon bombings to train our caregivers.  They ran 18 workshops in 5 days – Beth Israel, Brigham and Women’s, and MGH.  They weren’t on CNN every day, nor are they now.  But they were a major muscle behind #BostonStrong.  And now in Israel they are working harder than ever.  Following any siren, they immediately set up ad hoc “Resiliency Centers” all over Israel, so that anyone anywhere can walk in for respite or for treatment. Their room in this “house of meaning,” is one of extraordinary resilience.  And even though it’s a completely different context, this room reminded me of the suffering and resilience of our own city.  Home.

Nachamu, Nachamu Ami.

The 7th room. The room I came home to in Boston, with my wife Nicole and son Caleb, with Temple Israel last Shabbat, singing L’cha Dodi, liturgical words of homecoming: a taste of the messianic age that is the purpose of Shabbat.

This Shabbat, the Sabbath following Tisha B’av—the 9th of Av, the Day of Mourning the Destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem—this Shabbat called “Shabbat Nachamu, a Sabbath of Comfort.” It gets its name from the words of Isaiah: “Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami- Comfort my people, comfort them!”

And from this week we count 7 weeks until Rosh HaShanah, our New Year. 7 weeks, like 7 rooms, that take us from Destruction to Creation. 7 weeks to prepare for the work of Teshuva, of Return, of Divine Homecoming.

In our Torah portion this week, Moses describes the moment when the people return to God and he says: “panim b’fanim diber Adonai imachem—God spoke with all of you panim b’fanim,” usually translated “face to face,” but that’s not close enough (Deut 5:4). Panim b’Fanim is better read as seeing God’s presence b’fanim, BETWEEN or AMONG beings.

This Shabbat, we pray for comfort, comfort—for God’s presence—between and among human beings.

In the 7 weeks ahead may the Houses of Meaning, the Batei Mikdash, that we construct strengthen us in our journeys of teshuva, of return, of coming home.

And we pray, still we pray, that our brothers and sisters, Israelis and Palestinians, find their way, Panim b’Fanim, through the debris, along the dim pathway toward coexistence, and, God willing, one day, peace.

Nachamu, Nachamu Ami.

About the Author
Matthew Soffer is the Senior Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, where he leads the social justice efforts, practicing congregation-based community organizing with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Matt serves on the Advisory Council of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, the Board of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and the Rabbinic Council of Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.
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