Returning to Ourselves Again (Shabbat Nachamu)

Posted on August 1, 2020

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

When I was nine years old, I began walking to school on my own.  I would walk down the street and sing songs that I made up myself.  That year, during the same six-month period, I also wrote a play that my friends and I immediately started rehearsing.  I briefly played field hockey, which I am sure I was terrible at, but that didn’t matter.  Also, I figured out how to use the program Volkswriter on my mother’s IBM personal computer, which she’d acquired in order to write her dissertation.  I created an elaborate questionnaire to ask people all about themselves, and I created a magazine I wrote myself that had two whole issues and included a crossword puzzle.  Basically, at the of age nine, I was fairly sure that I could do anything that I set my mind to, and I usually took a pretty good go at it.  The world was made for me.

I’m a fairly self-confident person now—and my children will tell you that I still might start making up songs while we’re walking down the street—but there are times when I wish that I could return to just a little of the mindset of being nine and feeling like there is enough time in the world to do everything and that it’s all within my capacity if I just try hard enough. 

What was the time in your life when you felt most aware of your own amazingness and competency?  What was it deep within yourself that you relied on during that time?  What would it be like to return to that hour of your life and be able to take a sip of that nectar and to rely on what you relied on then?

Yesterday, in our Jewish calendar was the holiday of Tisha ba-Av, which marks the time when all the luck ran out.  It marks the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the great Holy Temple that stood in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.  It was the center of our identity as a people.  Our worship was focused there.  We sent our taxes there.  Our understanding of our relationship with God was rooted there.  The Beit Ha-Mikdash was destroyed twice, both times on the 9th day of the month of Av.  With it, went the ways of life and self-definition that had made up Jewish peoplehood.  The destruction of the Temple resulted in deep loss and extraordinary fear:  what if we could never be us anymore?  What if all our blessings had deserted us?  The ancient rabbis, who began creating Judaism anew, almost from scratch, in the decades and centuries following the Temple’s destruction, blamed the tragedy on the baseless hatred and casual cruelty that had grown up among the Jewish people in the Temple’s time:  People hadn’t been seeing each other as people anymore, so destruction reared its head.  We were but dust and ashes.

We mark Tisha ba-Av as a day of mourning each year, dark and deep—and then, on the Shabbat following that day each year, this Shabbat, we turn to caring for ourselves and each other and to rebuilding.  This is Shabbat Nachamu:  the Shabbat of Comfort.  We read tomorrow in our Haftarah the words of the prophet Isaiah:  Nachamu, nachamu ami—Comfort, comfort, o my people… we will yet ascend the lofty mountain and yet become heralds of joy.[1]  Though the structures we have counted on have been torn down, we are still here, and better things are coming. 

The ancient rabbis looked to what they saw as best in Judaism and returned to it, building something new out of the best of what was old.  Acknowledging that though tears do stay the night, joy will come in the morning—and we can help to make it so through our own recognition of what we are at our best, our strongest, our most resilient, and most capable, and building and growing from there.

Tonight, we joined with Cantor Hollis in singing “We Return”—we chose that song for this evening because it marks the fact that even in the face of destruction and desolation of centuries past, we have always returned:  to love, to truth, to trust, to hope, and to each other, again and again.  When the center has felt unsure and unsafe, we have returned nonetheless. 

Today was a beautiful day, and, thank God and the mask-wearing people of Massachusetts, we are not in a state of desolation.  And yet, there are ways in our own time that we are all aware that the center is not holding in the ways that so many of us imagined it always would.  In our time, there is hatred and cruelty that can threaten, both from within and without.  When we grow afraid during this time of pandemic and instability—many of us even struggling with the added weight of decisions, loss, depression, or anxiety—it can feel as if we are in an ongoing Tisha ba-Av, a time of mourning and fear for what is lost and may still be lost. 

This Shabbat comes to remind us—Shabbat, Nachamu; Shabbat, be our comfort!—that the best of us is still inside and among us.  Those best moments of our own amazingness and competency—those things we have relied on when we were at our most able to write a play and play field hockey and learn how to use an MS-DOS word processor all in one afternoon—they are there for us to turn to and return to, and we will return to them again. 

Comfort, comfort, o my people:  we return to love, we return to hope, we return to each other, and the world was created for us to be here.

Shabbat Shalom. 

[1]  Based on Isaiah 40:1, 9.