Nachamu: Experiencing the Comfort

City of Jerusalem during the time of the Tanakh, with the temple mount being in the north, and the rest of the city to the south. What is known today as the Old City was built later and located to the north-west.
City of Jerusalem during the time of the Tanakh, with the temple mount being in the north, and the rest of the city to the south. What is known today as the Old City was built later and located to the north-west.

“Comfort, comfort My people–Says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and proclaim that her time of exile has been fulfilled, that her iniquity has been conciliated, for she has recieved from the hand of Hashem double for all her sins.” –Isaiah 40:1-2

This year’s Tisha b’a Av, probably due to a little bit of personal stress as well as just the overall vibes that it gives seemed like it was extra tough and heavy, felt extra hard… at least for me this year. Thus besides getting something to eat, and being able to listen to music again, I was honestly super looking forward to getting a little bit of “comfort” from the Haftarah, “Nachamu.” Personally, I’d say it didn’t disappoint.

When looking back on Jewish history, for many empathetic people, the suffering involving our nation can be very hard to comprehend. Unanswered questions abound, and usually anyone who tries to answer any of those questions, really just comes off looking like a soulless jerk who just slapped a grieving mother at a funeral. And the truth is, we can sometimes forget the potency of the sorrow, but in reality, the awareness of the pain and unanswered questions are always there in the back of our minds. And really, it would seem that with these unanswered questions, there really is not much comfort, or what we might even call “closure” to be found. This is why I found the Artscroll’s commentary on the Haftarah struck so very potent this year:

“The Midrash (Pesika Rabbasi 30:30) states that God will appoint Abraham as his emissary to comfort Jerusalem. But Jerusalem will not be comforted. God will then send Isaac, but with the same results. Jacob and Moses will fare no better. Seeing that Jerusalem refuses to be comforted by it’s patriarchs, God will then approach to comfort the city.

“This verse is hinted at in the opening verses… ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God (To Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses). ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem….’

“But Zion said, ‘Hashem has forsaken me; that’s why He has not come to comfort me (Haftara of Eikev).’

“And God replied, ‘Oh afflicted, storm-tossed, (you are) unconsoled… (Haftara of Re’eh).’ Then, ‘It is I, I am He Who comforts you. (Haftara of Shoftim).'” (Artscroll commentary on Haftarat Ve’etchanan, in the Chumash)

Of course when reading this, one might ask, “OK, that’s great. G-d comforts us, no one else. But how does that work? And really, what exactly is that supposed to mean?”

To take a shot at answering that question, I want to take us in a not so different direction to a certain individual in the Tanach who also could not be comforted, who also has the same unanswered questions that we do when we take in our nation’s so very difficult history of suffering, and ironically, also had four individuals who made an attempt to comfort him. You might already know who I’m talking about– Job. I won’t spend too much time giving him an introduction, but for purposes here, let’s just say that the story of Job is about a guy who literally didn’t do anything wrong, and was literally given hell on earth.

Job’s friends come to comfort him, and a very deep, though also very emotional discussion takes place between Job and his friends about why such terrible things have happened to him, and ever so much more importantly, of why G-d would allow such things to happen. Job’s friends assert and insist that they have the answers. “Job is being tested.” “Job may not be as good a man as he claims to be.” “Job shouldn’t question G-d.” And all the while, Job maintains that he is being treated completely unfairly, and even drops certain assertions of doubt concerning G-d’s justice in the world, as many of us do when we feel the sharpness of the difficulty of our history. The majority of the book of Job contains this discussion with his friends,  contains great wisdom, and is truly a fascinating read that great rabbis have discussed for at least the past two thousand years.

Finally, in the last few chapters of the book of Job, G-d finally answers Job from a storm, describing the great works of all of creation that G-d brought into being. When reading the text, one may feel as if G-d is “pulling rank” on Job. Seemingly, none of Job’s questions are actually answered, at least not, as far as I personally can tell, on the surface (Keep in mind, I’m not a rabbi or even anything close to one). Logically, it would seem as though G-d power-tripped Job, and Job “tapped out” like the loser in an MMA fight.

But… is there more to it than this? Is there another way of looking at this?

Rambam (Or Maimonides) in his work Guide for the Perplexed, makes an interesting statement concerning G-d’s response to Job:

“The words of God are justified, as I will show, by the fact that Job abandoned his very first erroneous opinion, and himself proved that it was an error… He is represented to hold this view (Of questioning G-d’s judgement and/or His justice on earth) only so long as he was without wisdom, and knew God only by tradition, in the same manner that most religious people generally know Him. As soon as he had acquired a true knowledge of God, he confessed that there is undoubtedly true felicity in the knowledge of God; it is attained by all who acquire that knowledge, and no earthly trouble can disturb it.” (Guide to the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 23.)

Rambam goes on to elaborate on Job, but I believe this brings the point. Something between G-d and Job happened in their conversation that was more than just G-d “pulling rank.” In this small quote above,  Rambam repeats a word three times to describe what Job was left with after his dialogue with G-d: Knowledge… as opposed to tradition. (Before going on, it should be noted that if nothing else, tradition has help keep the Jewish nation alive for the past two thousand years of it’s exile, and I would argue, what keeps us alive concerning our identity and spiritually today).

What does this mean?

By making such a statement, the Rambam (Who many take to calling “The Rationalist”) has actually taken us to an interesting–even what we might call “mystical”–place, primarily because of the Hebrew definition of the word “knowledge.” In the West, we tend to think of knowledge as something technical and academic. We sit in school for a huge portion of our life, and someone gives us information. We take a test in order to judge how much we’ve acquired that information, and we pass or fail. Field trips usually diminish the older we get, so most of our learning is done not through experience, but through acquiring of information (Thank G-d for teachers who know how to inspire!).

On the other hand, when we approach the Hebrew definition of the word knowledge, “Da’at,” we find a so much deeper definition. It is not only the word for “knowledge,” but also intimacy, knowing through experience.  Not the knowing of something technical and hypothetical like your high school algebra class, but knowing like you just got tackled by a 300 lb. football lineman. “Adam knew (Was intimate with) Eve his wife.” (Gen. 4:1)

Thus, what Rambam is driving at here, is that this conversation between Job and G-d that takes place is not a classroom dialogue where the teacher pulls rank, but an event in which Job has an experience from the Divine.

What is this like?

I would assert that this is truly something hard to comprehend on a purely intellectual level, and again, is something that must be experienced. An intellectual scientist can describe the “hows” and “whats” of a sunset to a man who is blind from birth, but the blind man will never comprehend it’s beauty. This is why then, in the Midrash above, that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses could not comfort the nation. As truly high level as they are, as great giants of spirituality and connection to G-d and to Torah as they are, they cannot bring Jerusalem (The Jewish nation) to ultimate comfort for it’s so very difficult history of suffering. It is only through a fantastic, ultimate experience of the Divine that such deep, completely fulfilled comfort can take place.

It is our loving Father, our holy King, who will comfort us on such a deep, emotional, and spiritual level like no one else ever could.

These days, I do believe we are drawing closer to this kind of experience, and yet in the meantime, how do we hold on? At the base, one could answer, “maintaining the tradition,” and that would most certainly be true. And yet, is there more?

I would argue that we can taste a bit of experience through deep prayer, learning the meaning and internalizing in an almost “meditative” kind of way. Praying Tehilim and learning their meanings, because they are echoes of prophetic intimacy to the Divine that bring us beautiful connection; learning what it truly means when we say that Shabbat is a “foretaste of the World to come.” The more we learn and internalize the depths of their meanings, the more we come to internally experiencing in our heart and soul. To talk to G-d in private, telling everything that lies on our hearts. Though we may always have a lack of that ultimate comfort that is predicted in that Midrash, there are truly amazing ways to connect and experience, through the deeper meanings of what has been given to us, that can take us to places of awareness far beyond this world.

To know and realize that we are loved by G-d. 

Though we may always lack comforting on some level that may never be rectified, until that ultimate time, who knows? Perhaps we may even reach the point of being like Rebbi Akiva who was able to laugh upon seeing the destruction of the Temple, because he knew that as painful as it was, that it’s destruction actually meant that it would be rebuilt. The man who was even able to say the Shema Israel with full intent and focus with his last breath while being tortured to death by the Romans.

Because with this great experience, as incomprehensible as it might be, comes a new awareness beyond physical pain and suffering.

May we all draw closer to G-d in this time of comfort, and in the time of the Great Future Comfort, after the sorrow…

About the Author
Yehonatan was born in Dover, Tennessee, US. After converting to Judaism under the conservative movement, he made Aliyah, and converted again in Jerusalem under the Rabbanut at Machon Meir. He works in the City of David, and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and daughter.
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