It’s been a long time since I’ve written out sermons, due to a lack of time and an evolving speaking style. Still, I’m finding it useful to have at least some written record of what I say from year to year and people have regularly been requesting I post sermons.[1. Protip: It’s best if you actually come to my shul for a Shabbat]. The following does not represent a “polished” sermon, but rather are the notes from which I give the actual derasha. Even if the flow may be disjointed, the point and the derasha should still be comprehensible.
Thank you all, it’s wonderful to be back at my shul. I know some of you have wondering where I’ve been, but those stories will have to wait for another time. But while my absence was necessary, I nevertheless regret not being here for the difficult times of the past month. Still, for those who have felt loss in the past month, be it personal, communal, or national for the hurban, and indeed for anyone who has ever suffered a loss in their past, I would like to offer a new perspective on consolation.
This week is called Shabbat Nachamu – literally the Sabbath of Consolation, so named after the first words of the Haftara
ישעיהו מ, א-ב
(א) נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
What is the consolation of God? How are we supposed to recover from the devastation of the hurban? How to we make ourselves whole from pain of loss? Words.
(ב) דַּבְּרוּ עַל לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְקֹוָק כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל חַטֹּאתֶיהָ:
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
So I guess that makes all that fire, death, and destruction, go away and we’re all good. But anyone who has ever grieved or felt loss, knows sometimes how insufficient words can be no matter how kind and sincere. I suppose we could make a kal vehomer, a logical inference for when the words and response seem, well, less than kind.
Take for example, Moshe’s loss, his grief at not being able to enter the land of Israel, and God’s less than sympathetic response.
דברים ג, כג-כז
כג) וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל יְקֹוָק בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר: (כד) אֲדֹנָי יְקֹוִק אַתָּה הַחִלּוֹתָ לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַבְדְּךָ אֶת גָּדְלְךָ וְאֶת יָדְךָ הַחֲזָקָה אֲשֶׁר מִי אֵל בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה כְמַעֲשֶׂיךָ וְכִגְבוּרֹתֶךָ: (כה) אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנֹן:
23 At that time I pleaded with the Lord: 24 “Sovereign Lord, you have begun to show to your servant your greatness and your strong hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do the deeds and mighty works you do? 25 Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan—that fine hill country and Lebanon. ”
And how does God respond to this request? Knowing full well how much it means to Moshe? He gets angry and literally tells Moshe to shut up.
(כו) וַיִּתְעַבֵּר יְקֹוָק בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלָי וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֵלַי רַב לָךְ אַל תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה:
26 But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. “That is enough,” the Lord said. “Do not speak to me anymore about this matter.
So here we have Moshe – God’s Servant. His lifelong dream taken from him. His life’s purpose and mission rescinded. And God, the one who says ישעיהו נא, יב
(יב) אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא מְנַחֶמְכֶם I, even I, am he who comforts you – slams the door in his face.
Actually it’s even worse because God adds insult to injury. Forget the lack of compassion for Moshe, God even throws in a dig – not sure if you caught it – when he says “Rav Lach” – it is too much for you. Where else do we find that idiom? Korach!
במדבר טז, ג
(ג) וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם
Bad enough God turns a deaf ear to Moshe, but does he also have to compare Moshe to Korach?
And so I ask, where’s the nechama for Moshe? And why on Shabbat Nachamu of all weeks do we read about God treating his loyal and trusted servant with such indifference, if not outright cruelty?
Before we get to the answer, I think it would help to refine what we mean by grieving over loss. So for example the Olympics are going on right now. I think it’s safe to say with near certainty that no one in this room is ever going to win an Olympic medal. And I’m also going to assume that most of us here are ok with that reality. We have no illusions of athletic greatness and so we’re not going to feel a sense of loss at not winning the ultimate prize.
But what if you’re someone like Lolo Jones. In the 2008 Bejiing Olympics, Jones held a huge lead in the 100m hurdles, clipped the 9th hurdle out of 10, and wound up finishing 7th losing out on all medals. Now we all share something in common with Lolo Jones in that none of us won that medal. Who do you think feels worse about that – us or Jones? Obviously Jones, who to this day is still fighting back the label of “choking.” And why does she feel worse? What makes it more painful for Jones to not win a medal than it does for us?
The answer can be summed up in one word: Possibility.
Simply put, you’re only going to feel a sense of loss when you know what it is that you’ve lost. We don’t regret opportunities which never came to us, only those that passed us by, because we knew they were possible. They represent what could have been. Alternatively An item in your possession. A loved one who had been part of your life. These are not only possibilities but known quantities. We know they existed and we mourn their loss. What we don’t do is mourn the impossible.
But therein lies the problem.
After an opportunity passes, after we experience the loss, our reality changes and the possible becomes impossible. Try as we might and no matter how much we want to, we can’t turn back time or change the past. And the more we hold on to the past, the more we sit on the floor and lament, “אוי מה היה לנו” – Oh, what did we use to have in the past – the more we’re going to reject and ignore any words of consolation.
To be sure this is an important part of the grieving process. But we’re also told by R. Shimon Ben Elazar in Pirkei Avot 4:18 ואל תנחמנו בשעה שמתו מוטל לפניו – do not console your friend while his dead lies before him. When the pain of loss is still raw, when the person has not let go of the past, one cannot perform consolation for the simple reason that he not ready to be consoled. It is only after a burial where we transition, where we accept the loss for what it is, can the healing process of consolation begin.
Now let us turn back to Moshe. When God decreed that Moshe wouldn’t enter the land, Moshe’s reality changed and Israel was no longer a possibility. The problem is, Moshe couldn’t accept it. He couldn’t accept that the world as is, the reality as is, when it wasn’t what he wanted it to be. In this regard God reminds him subtly that this mode of thinking is kind of what got Korach into trouble: wanting the world to be different other than what it is.
And keep in mind God never told Moshe not to pray – after all he did intervene on behalf of the Jewish people multiple times. But at some point he has to be told no. And while it seems cruel, while it may cause pain, having Moshe accept his reality is the kindest thing God can do because it is only after we accept our situation as it is, can we ever hope to achieve nechama.
We’re told in Kohelet
קהלת ז, י
(י) אַל תֹּאמַר מֶה הָיָה שֶׁהַיָּמִים הָרִאשֹׁנִים הָיוּ טוֹבִים מֵאֵלֶּה כִּי לֹא מֵחָכְמָה שָׁאַלְתָּ עַל זֶה:
“Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.” – Because there is no wisdom in living in the past. Mah de’avah hava – what is done is done. There is no shame in acknowledging the good of the past, but we cannot live our lives looking backwards. Instead we are told at the end of Eicha, the book graphically detailing our destruction, how to respond:
חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם:
Even in the moment of our greatest destruction, we look not to the ruins of our past, but pray for the possibility of our future: to renew our days as of old.
My message for this week to the shul, and believe me when I include myself, is that after we have learned our lessons from the past, and perhaps appreciate what we’ve had with gratitude, we can put the past behind us, to grow from what we once were and embrace the possibility of who we may yet achieve to be.