The meaning of consolation in our times

The Seventeenth day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz marks the beginning of the Three Weeks of Mourning that culminate on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. During this time, Jewish people refrain from several pleasurable activities and reflect on the destruction of Jerusalem and the host of national tragedies that have befallen our people throughout the ages.

Following the Three Weeks, the Seven Weeks of Consolation commence. We reengage with regular life and we read verses of consolation from various prophets during the Haftorah reading on Shabbat. However, it behooves us to ask, what is the meaning of such consolation? After all, our Temple has not been rebuilt. For almost all intents and purposes, we are still a nation in exile, beset by many trials and afflictions. How then, are we to understand the call of the prophets to console ourselves?

Perhaps a similar question can be asked about the widespread Jewish custom to visit those who are mourning the death of a relative and offer them words of consolation. What are we trying to accomplish? We cannot bring their relative back from the dead and far be it from us to attempt to minimize their pain by suggesting that their loss is “not so bad”. Actually, if one analyses the Jewish laws of visiting a house of mourning, one finds that levity and other forms of happy conversation are prohibited and that all discussion should center around the deceased. How then, can such activity be characterized as consolation, when, in fact, it might appear to briefly intensify the pain?

Perhaps we can offer the following explanation. When one experiences the death of a loved one, the loss of the deceased’s influence is a paramount contributor to the mourner’s pain. The mourner is struck by the fact that he or she will no longer be able to spend time with the deceased. They will no longer be able to go to the deceased for counsel, comfort, or company. This, understandably, leaves them numb and grieving. However, through discussion about the attributes, character traits, and good deeds of the deceased, the mourners come to realize that they are, in fact, taking their loved one with them as they forge on with life. As they remember and commit to emulating their loved one, they are solidifying a connection with them that transcends physical connection. This is, indeed, a form of consolation.

Similarly, it is true that the destruction of Jerusalem and its aftermath have not been completely rectified. We are still without a Temple, prophecy, and a myriad of other spiritual amenities. The Three Weeks of mourning that we engage with each year are meant to bring that to the forefront of our consciousness. However, it is our mourning that ensures our continued connection with Jerusalem and spirituality in general. It is our reminder that we have what to strive towards and yearn for. Perhaps this is the meaning of the call for consolation even amidst our concurrent exile.

About the Author
Baruch Weiss is a psychotherapy intern, a Rabbi, and a journalist.
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