Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Road to Comfort

Elie Weisel in his "Souls On Fire" told of meeting for the first time a hasid of Breslov in the Nazi labor camp. He described the hasid as full of hope no matter how awful the circumstances and doing all in his power to provide hope to others. Weisel wrote "One night someone asked him: "What would your Rebbe Nachman say to the thousands of men, women and children who live and die here in one place in one night?
Who could answer their question?" There was silence and then a whispered sigh escaped his painfully twisted mouth:"Who says that we are a question? And what if our death were answer?"

This Shabbat is called "Shabbat Nachamu", "The Sabbath of Consolation". Each year it falls directly after Tisha B'av, our national day or mourning. We read in the haftorah the words of the prophet Yeshayahu "Comfort ye comfort ye my People so says Hashem your G-d." Where is the "comfort"? Nothing has changed. Our national circumstances remain as they were and yet in the promise G-d makes us of future comfort we already feel relief.
It is as if Tisha B'av itself, the time of overwhelming sadness provides the seeds of the healing and redemption.

And indeed it does. Truth be told, while every person endures great loss in life there is no 'nechama' for the indvidual in this world. Our losses are real. We sustain tragedies and disappointments of enormous magnitude. Who has not had a story that included gut wrenching suffering either emotional or physical or both, whether to them or someone they love. Life is hard and so often cruel. We may spend a lifetime trying to make sense out of the unfathomable. More often than not our only real way of coping is to try to forget the 'bad' so as to put it out of our mind. To think on it only causes us unsettledness. Forgetting is not the same as finding comfort. Personal comfort eludes us.

In marking Tisha B'av we choose not to forget the tragedies but on the contrary, we choose to remember them. Indeed we choose to do more than remember them. We choose to re-enter them. How dare we? How dare we re-live the unbearable, re-enter the intolerable. How can we relive that which most everyone else would prefer to forget so that they could live and function?

The answer is that true, if we were processing personal loss, we could not find comfort and remembering the tragic only fosters pain. It is for this reason Holocaust survivors for so long remained silent to their experience. To tell the stories would take them back into the Kingdom of Night. With no comfort available the only alternative to be able to cope is to forget.

On Tisha B'av however we did not grieve as individuals for personal losses, no matter how profound. No, we grieved as a nation and for the losses sustained through time. Yes. there are many personal strories we recall of people and places, but all in the context of our national drama. The indvidual horror no matter how compelling is subsumed within the odyssey of our people. What is unavailable to the singular person is indeed available to us as part of the Jewish People. On Tisha B'av as we become connected in our losses to the tragedies of the millenia and unite with our fellow Jews we become able to remember, indeed relive, and on the other side of that find comfort...We find a comfort in knowing that each saga no matter how sad does not stand alone. Rather it is part of a larger story and as the Breslover Hasid said to his campmate "what if our death is an answer?"

When the prophet offers the words of comfort as found in the haftorah he does not talk to the indvidual. In the name of G-d he says "Comfort ye comfort ye my People".
It is only once we become one with the story and destiny of Israel that comfort becomes possible. Only then can we can experience even the saddest moments as part of a purposeful journey that all of us particpate in rather than isolated moments in time both empty and unfair.

If the Holocaust survivors were silent for so many years I suspect it was because they did not yet feel their story was our story. We were not yet ready to hear the stories. We did not yet know we could. We thought, perhaps better to forget that which cannot be contained and comforted. Only after we as a people embraced the Holocaust as a significant component of our collective history and insisted that each and every indiviudal horror belonged to the nation's conscience did it become possible to remember and indeed relive and find a modicum of consolation.

The road to comfort is a challenging one. We need to resist the temptation to take the easy way out and forget. To reach comfort we must not travel alone. Private comfort is not available to us. To contain the tragic in our lives we must belong.
We must place the tragic, no matter how personal, within the drama of our people.

Is it any wonder then that Ashekenazic Jews comfort the mourner sitting shiva though the loss personal with the words "May G-d comfort you together with the mourners of Zion".

Shabbat Shalom

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