Sermon: Where can we find comfort? (Nachamu) (Cantor Cheryl Wunch)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

It has been a tough few weeks.  A tough summer.  It seems as if our entire world has been turned upside down, mixed up.  War and hatred and confusion abound.  This week we commemorated Tisha B’av, and while traditionally this observance remembers and mourns the destruction of the first and second Temples, as well as other calamities that have befallen our people, this year we were all focused on war…  The war in Israel and Gaza, the war being waged throughout the world on the Jewish people, and the wars that we are fighting within ourselves.  Who do we support?  Who is the real enemy?  How can we, as progressive, modern people support our homeland and yet still mourn for the innocent lives lost on both sides?  It has been a tough summer.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of comfort.  Shabbat Nachamu comes immediately after Tisha B’av and begins the traditional 7 week period – the Seven Weeks of Consolation – that lead up to Rosh Hashanah.  This Shabbat takes its name from the first word of our Haftarah portion – nachamu nachamu ami, yomar Eloheichem – “Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God.”  We are comforted after Tisha B’av, after despair and destruction, and reminded that RoshHashanah, our chance for rebirth and renewal is coming.  We climb out of the depths of darkness, and begin the painful process of cheshbon hanefesh – taking account of our souls.  We take the lessons learned in the darkness, and begin to repent, reassess, and return our souls to how they once were.  This summer, many of us have seen sides of ourselves that we might not have known were there…ugly sides, which pit human being against human being, which demonize and condemn, out of fear and anger.  We have become reactionary and enraged, for good reason, no doubt, and we have witnessed viciousness and violence beyond our expectations.  As we see yet another ceasefire fall apart, we could all use some comfort this Shabbat.  After all of the terrible things that we have seen, and continue to see this summer, it is hard to imagine what could possibly comfort us.

The Torah portion on Shabbat Nachamu is always Ve’etchanan – which includes the repetition of the 10 Commandments.  What is the connection here?  We have been devastated, reminded of all of the bad things that have befallen our people, and then we rise from the ashes and are reminded of God’s covenant, our connection to The Divine and to each other.  We are told that, no matter how bleak things may seem, the commandments, the Mitzvot, the glue that holds us together, still remains.  Jews are united by these mitzvot, regardless of sect, observance, or belief.  The mitzvot tie us together as one people.  The commandments are comforting, something to fall back on when we lose our way.  The commandments remind us of God’s love for all of us, and how comforting that love can be.

Love is another theme that is predominant this month.  There is another festival coming up –Tu B’av, which is all about love.  Some people have referred to Tu B’Av as the “Jewish Valentine’s day” – but that’s not really an accurate description.  In the Mishnah we read: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, ‘There were no greater festive days in Israel than the fifteenth day of Av and Yom Kippur, when the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white dresses so as not to embarrass those who didn’t have their own.  They would go out and dance in the vineyards.  What would they say?  ‘Young man, lift up your eyes and see whom you wish to choose for yourselves.  Do not cast forth your eyes after beauty, but cast forth your eyes after family.  False is grace and vanity is beauty; a woman who fears Adonai is the one to be praised;’ and the scriptures further state, ‘Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her deeds praise her in the gates.’”  Basically, Tu B’Av was a day when all of the young single women would go out dancing in the fields in order to attract their future husbands.  For many years, this festival was a favourite time for couples to hold their weddings, and many communities celebrated Tu B’av as they would any other major festival – with celebration and festive meals.

The timing of this festival, so soon after Tisha B’av, seems rather peculiar.  To go from mourning to, well, flirting in such a short amount of time seems illogical at best.  There are many reasons why this was the practice on this particular day – some of these reasons date back to biblical stories, but for what I believe to be the most convincing reason, we just need to do some simple mathematics.  We mourn the destruction of the Temple on the 9th day of Av, and then celebrate love and matrimony 7 days later on the 15th day of Av.  This seven day period was the Shivathat our ancestors observed after the destruction of the Temple, and then when they were ready to rise from their mourning, they affirmed life by celebrating love.  They proved to themselves that not only does life go on, but it MUST go on, with joy and celebration and with love.  This not only explains the celebration of Tu B’Av, but it makes clear the Talmudic teaching that “whoever causes a bride and groom to rejoice is restoring one of the ruins of the city of Jerusalem.”  Just like how families will rise from their own period of shiva after a death and take a walk around the block, to remind themselves that despite their sorrow, they must re-enter life, Tu B’av was a festival that reminded our ancestors that, despite their sorrow, the Jewish people would still thrive and grow.

If there is one thing that we as a people fear the most, it is that we will eventually cease to be.  All of our ancient and modern wars have been, ultimately, a battle for our very survival.  I am reminded of a story:

Sitting in the Warsaw ghetto were a father and son.  It was Pesach.  They were having a Seder.  Both were frail and ill and longing to discover new hope amidst the familiar pages of the Haggada.  It was time for the Four Questions.  The boy asked them beautifully.  The father was about to turn the page when suddenly the boy said, “Tatty, I have one more Question.”  “Go ahead my son,” the father hesitantly replied.  The child continued, “Tatty, my 5th question is the following:  Can you promise me that you will be alive next year to answer my Four Questions?”  Pause.  “Can you promise me that I will be here next year to ask them?”  And, as the angels themselves were silent and peering down at this holy feast, the father paused and said, “Mein Teyera Kynd (my precious child), I cannot lie.  While I hope, along with you, that you and I will survive this for another year, a promise I cannot make.  But here is a promise I can provide you with:  maybe you will live maybe not, maybe I will live maybe not, but I promise that next year and in all future years there will be a child somewhere asking his father the Four Questions.  I promise that we as a Torah nation will never perish”

The Jewish people will survive and will thrive.  We have overcome so much pain and horror, and love is what has pulled us through.  Love is the only way to assure the future of the Jewish people – not just the romantic love of Tu B’Av but the love between parent and child in the story, love for ourselves, love for our neighbours, and love for God.  The commandments that we read on this Shabbat remind us of God’s love for us, as we begin to deal with the difficult times in which we live.  When we express this love, by caring for each other, by reaching out and helping all of those in our world who are in pain, by sharing a meal, a kind word, or a smile, we bring comfort.  We bring healing.  We bring God’s presence among us, and right now, we need that more than anything.  This year, let’s not ignore this minor festival.  Let’s not write off Tu B’av as another outdated ritual, but let’s celebrate love in its many forms, and know that it is only through love that we can begin to heal our broken world.  I am not saying that we should not be angry at the atrocities that we see, that we should not be horrified and frightened for the state of our world, but I do know that fighting for our own survival has to be based on love, not hate and fear.  Nachamu nachamu ami, yomar Eloheichem – “Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God.”  This is not a passive request, but a direct command.  It’s our job to comfort one another.  And when we do, we bring God’s presence and God’s love into our hearts, into our communities, and into the world.