Nothing prepares you to comfort a parent that lost their child. I have gone to rabbinical school, taken classes on pastoral counseling, and majored in psychology in college. None of that can begin to prepare me for Shiva homes and phone calls in which parents are grieving the loss of their own child. Sometimes, there is not much comfort to offer. No one, no words, and nothing can compensate for so heartbreaking of a loss. On Shabbat Nachamu, we echo God’s message of comfort to our people, a people who have suffered too much to be comforted.
Shabbat Nachamu is named for the words of Isaiah (chapter 40), offering comfort and consoling—Nechama— to the Jewish people:
“Console, console My people,” says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her, for she has become full [from] her host, for her iniquity has been appeased, for she has taken from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins….Upon a lofty mountain ascend, O herald of Zion, raise your voice with strength, O herald of Jerusalem; raise [your voice], fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40)
God cannot console His people. He tries once, then tries again. Speaking to her will not suffice, so he begins speaking to her heart. When that does not work, He calls out to her. The Midrash shares a heartrending account of God sending every patriarch, matriarch, and prophet to comfort the Jewish people, yet the Jewish people refuse. The prophets all returned to God, telling Him of the Jewish people’s refusal to be comforted. Finally, God, Himself, offers words of comfort and counsel to the Jewish people. But what is the comforting message God is sending us?
What comfort can be offered to a proud nation conquered by strangers, children murdered, sent into exile, sold into slavery, whose most sacred has been violated, and whose suffering has gone on century after century? What words of comfort are there for a nation that has endured more pain and suffering than any other nation? What words of comfort can one offer to someone who lost everything in the Holocaust?
The answer to this can be found in two very different hospitals.
The first is the Jewish Hospital in Hamburg or Der Israelitisches Krankenhaus Hamburg. The hospital was built in 1843 and was donated by a local Jewish banker Salomon Heine. Salomon’s nephew, the famous Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine, wrote a poem on the occasion of this inauguration. His poem shocks many to this day in its contempt for Judaism and the Jewish people. Heinrich wrote as follows:
“A hospital for Jews who’re sick and needy,
For those unhappy threefold sons of sorrow,
Afflicted by the three most dire misfortunes
Of poverty, disease, and Judaism.
The worst by far of all the three the last is,
That family misfortune, thousand years old,
That plague which had its birth in Nile’s far valley,
The old Egyptian and unsound religion.
Incurable deep pain!’ gainst which avail not
Nor douche nor vapor-bath, the apparatus
Of surgery, nor all the means of healing
Which this house offers to its sickly inmates.
Will Time, eternal goddess, e’er extinguish
This glowing ill, descending from the father
Upon the son—and will the grandson ever
Be cured, and rational become and happy?”
The appalling levels of hate for one’s own people and the deep contempt for Judaism and everything Judaism stands for are shocking to anyone reading the poem. Had we not known who wrote it, we might have assumed one of the worst of anti-Semites has written it.
Yet, the story of Hamburg’s Jewish hospital did not end there.
Almost one hundred years later, Hamburg’s last Chief Rabbi before the Holocaust, Rabbi Joseph Carlebach, led the community through its final days with pride and devotion. It was clear that the Nazi chokehold on the community was getting tighter and tighter.
The hospital’s centennial anniversary was going to be in 1943. In 1941, realizing that they may not be alive by 1943, Rabbi Carlebach told members of his community that they will be marking the hospital’s centennial two years early. Rabbi Carlebach wrote a poem rebottling that of Heinrich Heine, a rebuttal vindicated by history itself. Heinrich had abandoned his people and converted out to gain acceptance in a European society he saw as superior to his own people. Almost one hundred years later, the moral bankruptcy and abysmal immorality of that same society became universally apparent with its persecution of Heinrich’s people—the Jewish people.
Standing in Hamburg with whatever was left of its Jewish community, the community marked the—almost—centennial of what represented who they are: a community that has done everything to contribute to the society in which they lived, while that society did everything it can to put an end to their life.
Rabbi Carlebach proclaimed:
“Our Faith—is our joy,
It will give us the strength to overcome the world around us,
And this time—time of the Jewish love for humankind,
Is celebrating one hundred years of victory,
To us, this is a proud witness of faithful faith,
That being Jewish is the peak of our joy,
Elevated, singular, and ultimate.”
(Translated by Rabbi Carlebach’s daughter Miriam Gillis)
Heinrich Heine’s poem was rebutted. Not much by a literary victory, but more by the tragedy of circumstances. Hamburg’s Jewish community’s love for humanity contrasted with the hate of the society in which they had dwelled made it very clear what society one should want to belong to. Would you like to belong to the people whose faith inspires them to build hospitals and bring life to the world, or would you like to exchange that same belonging for a ticket to enter a society that took life from anyone who did not fit their ideals?
That is the message of Nachamu Ami—comfort my nation. God may have given us a more difficult path than most other nations, but it is a path of Ami—my nation. Who said so? Yomar Elokechem—says your God. Not just any God, the God of this people. You must always remember you are my people. That is the comfort we are offered. Yet, the story does not end here.
As one walks near the beautiful sandy beaches of Netanya and its scenic cliffs, feeling the fresh Mediterranean breeze, one can see the beautiful building of the Laniado hospital. The hospital serves residents of the city of Netanya and much of Israel’s North. This world-class hospital did not come out of nowhere. It was built by Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam (1905 –1994) the Rebbe of the Sanz-Klausenburg Hasidic dynasty. What brought the Rabbi to dedicate fifteen years of his life to building this hospital.
After his wife and nine children were murdered by the Nazis, Rabbi Halberstam was subject to slave labor in Auschwitz, and he went from camp to camp. As the German loss became imminent, the Rabbi and other Jews were marched in the Death Marches. Anyone who walked a bit too slowly was shot immediately. As they were walking through the frozen forests of Europe, malnourished, a German soldier shot a bullet that went through the palm of Rabbi Halberstam’s hand. If he stopped for a moment, he would be shot dead. Frozen, exhausted, malnourished, and now injured, Rabbi Halberstam felt he won’t be able to carry himself alive for much longer. He turned to God and said: “if you get me out of this alive, I will go to Israel and build a hospital that will help others heal.”
Against all odds, Rabbi Halberstam survived. He immediately began reviving Jewish life after the Holocaust, establishing schools, synagogues, Kosher food, and classes in Europe’s DP camps. He then moved to the United States and, in 1955, moved to Israel. He met with prime minister David Ben Gurion who was deeply impressed by the Rabbi who went on to build schools and Yeshivot in Israel and establish the Laniado Hospital in Netanya.
Not only has the Laniado hospital gone on to serve the city of Netanya and many residents of northern Israel, but it has also served to support Israeli soldiers who have been injured in conflict with Lebanon and other northern fronts. The vision of an injured and almost lifeless skeleton walking in the forests of Poland and Germany became a hospital that has treated hundreds of thousands of people. It did not replace those who were lost, nor did it erase the suffering endured; it did bring comfort and remind the Rabbi of his unique mission in this world. Rabbi Halberstam got to live out in the sharpest ways the difference between him and his persecutors—Nachamu Nachamu Ami—remember you are My nation.
As we look around us and see the overwhelming numbers of tragedies and pain, Shabbat Nachamu is an opportunity to take comfort from all that pain. We take comfort by remembering our unique mission, our special calling, and that no one will comfort us other than God and our mission. Comfort won’t just happen; it will have to come through our hearts—Dabru Al Lev Yerushalayim—speak to the hearts of Jerusalem. May God bless a people in so much need of comfort with the ultimate comfort and rebuilding of Beit Hamikdash.