When I was 21, I lost a close friend to leukemia. Heidi was just 19; she was vibrant, super-intelligent, and possessed an extraordinary appetite for Torah and the intellectual life. A runner-up in the World Bible Quiz and a brilliant university student, she had an insatiable curiosity, sharp intensity and a capacity to connect to others with ease. She fought her illness with courage, composure, and the support of her singular family and a wide group of friends. Her death left us, her friends, reeling. We were too young to be touched by premature death, unsure how to navigate the road of mourning, the journey towards meaning.
I’m writing about Heidi today because (in the Jewish calendar) we are in the Seven Weeks of Comfort or Consolation that follow on the Three Weeks of Death and Devastation commemorating the destruction of the Temples and a long list of Jewish suffering. I’m writing about her because “Shabbat Nachamu,” the first of these seven Shabbat, is forever connected in my mind and soul with Heidi. It was a few months after her death, I was at her family shule for Shabbat, and her dad read the famous words of this Haftarah; the first of the seven Haftarot of condolence that lead up to Rosh Hashanah:
“נחמו נחמו עמי”
“Comfort, comfort my people – says your God” (Isaiah 40:1)
These are poignant words at any time, but on this Shabbat they tore at my heart not only because I was longing for consolation, but because of the way he read these anguished words. He was a formidable and determined East European Jew; we were all in awe of his incisive intellect, his Talmudic and general knowledge, and his vigorous eloquence. He was a former Yeshiva bocher and student of the great Rav Yitzchok Hutner. He was a man of the mind; objective, rational not given to the softness of emotion. Tears were not in his book. Yet on this Shabbat when he read the Haftarah, you felt the depth of his loss, the unbearable ache of the words, and the plangent sound of the nusach (tune). It was on this Shabbat I began to get a deeper understanding of loss and the power of consolation.
The Prophet Isaiah understood too well how fragile life is: “All flesh is grass and all its kindness like the flower of the field… the grass will wither, the flower will fade… but the word of our God shall stand forever” (Ibid. 6-7). He also recognised how potent giving comfort is: God Himself gathers us up “like a shepherd… would gather lambs in his arm and carry them close to Him…” It’s not only God who gives comfort – one of the gifts of being human is our capacity to reach out and support someone in pain. In fact the words “נחמו נחמו” can be translated as give comfort to others, to one another. We need the touch of others to heal us.
In this week’s Parasha (Ekev) we read about the ark that Moses constructed to house the Ten Commandments. The ark held not only the second intact set of stones, but also the broken pieces from the first that Moses had smashed in his anger and disappointment. In this is a reminder that we always carry with us the fragments of our broken selves, our failures and our sins. This also explains why there are only three weeks of Devastation but Seven of Consolation. Loss and injury often happen very quickly, but healing and mending are usually slow and considered.
Just think how long it can take to heal wounds after a devastating accident or attack. The accident may take just 5 minutes but the recovery can take five years… Recovering from PTSD is often an arduous and lengthy process. Rabbi Yaakovson suggests that this is evident in Jacob’s life and how he needed time to both get over the perceived loss of his son Joseph and then to accept he was actually alive.
We need to bear this in mind when we carelessly talk about others or cause harm to their name and reputation. A casual word can kill a lifetime of achievement; it can take years and years to rebuild after a collapse…
The Seven Weeks are ultimately about the power to reconstruct, to build again, and to hope after devastation and destruction. It’s ingrained in the Jewish psyche, it makes us the people of the long vision. We break a glass at a wedding (under the chuppah) as a reminder of loss, but also as a gesture of optimism, a belief that good relationships mend the broken shards and heal the wounded world.
And so I still carry Heidi in my heart and in my life’s work. She is a reminder to me of the unbearable losses of life as well as the unbelievable ways we can cope, renew, rebuild and reinvigorate.