As we move out of the mourning of Tisha B’Av, and into our preparations for the High Holy Days, we are given tools of consolation. Seven weeks to return to the world of miracles, joy, hope and possibility. Shuva is our process of return and reflection. But we may ask, how can we return after the pain of so great a loss? When loss is communal, such as the loss of the Temple that goes to the heart of the whole people, or when the loss is personal, such as the loss of a child, which is all encompassing; loss from violence; loss due to addiction, how do we return? Particularly for families dealing with addiction-related loss, comfort is often difficult to come by. There is guilt and shame. There is anger and frustration. We withdraw from our community and our sources of support. Where is the comfort?
Our tradition provides us with a framework for comfort. Seven weeks to prepare for our return to ourselves. There are seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks is a familiar period of time. There are seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. Rescue and redemption were gifts that included loss—loss of the known to the unknown. It was terrifying, and it took seven weeks of struggle before the people were ready to receive the comfort of the Torah, the instruction that taught the people how to be responsible for themselves in the world. Over and over again we are taught that comfort comes slowly. You can’t flip a switch and feel better. Comfort takes time.
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of our Comfort. It takes its name from the first words of the haftorah, where the prophet Isaiah tells us, “Nachamu Nachamu Ami—Comfort Comfort My people.” What is happening in this story? Previously, Isaiah has exhorted the people for their sins that led to the destruction of the First Temple, and yet here, he reminds the people that God will provide comfort, God will not forget them, God will reconsider their sins.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsh suggests that that word “nachamu” with just a few vowel changes can be read as “nechama” which means reconsideration. In order to experience comfort, we need to reconsider where we have been and where we are going. It is a process. We must change perspective, just as God has changed perspective from focusing on our misdeeds to refocusing on our power to change. There is love in this process, despite the disappointment and anger.
If we go back to the first stories in our Torah, we see that even when God was punishing Adam and Eve for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, God was also comforting them. We are told that God prepared garments of skin, clothes to protect them outside the Garden.
Similarly, in this week’s parasha, Ve’etchanan, read on Shabbat Nachamu, Moses pleads with God to reconsider the decree that he would die before crossing the Jordan. As a family member of someone struggling with addiction, we hear the pleas. Our loved ones, like Moses, cry out. All those connected to them cry out, feeling loss. Yet, God’s response, “Rav lach,” often translated as “Enough!” can also mean something else. Sifrei Bamidbar 135:1 suggests that it can be translated as “Much for you.” Perhaps God is saying to Moses, you have done so much for these people and for Me, now I am doing much for you and giving you respite from this difficult role. It is time for the people to walk forward without you. According to this interpretation, it is Moses who needs to reconsider the decree. He will feel the comfort later.
How do we take these spiritual lessons and apply them concretely in our lives when our suffering is great and comfort seems far and out of reach? We take our time. We take the weeks and months that are required to do the work. And each day, we wake up and take a step forward.
Rabbi Alan Lew writes, “Spiritual practice doesn’t remove what hurts in the world, it doesn’t take away our suffering… but it can allow us to see what happens more clearly and to respond with compassion and love.”
These words can give us comfort. They give us permission to acknowledge the pain, to go through the process step by step, and come away with the hope and the promise that in time, even with the loss, comfort will come.
By Lisa Lisser
Lisa Lisser, MA Religious Education, is the assistant director of religious school engagement at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan, committed to growing Jewish adults. Additionally, she is a founding board member of The T’Shuva Center, a Jewish residential sober-living facility opening in Brooklyn this fall. She can be reached at [email protected].
Since the passing of her son Eric by suicide in 2016, Eta Levenson and her family founded the Eric Eliezer Levenson Foundation for Hope to fight the stigmatization of mental illness, raise awareness about mental health challenges and help prevent suicide. She can be reached at [email protected].