After three weeks of intense mourning for the Bais Hamikdosh and all its ramifications, we are suddenly comforted by the novi and by Hashem Himself (see Abudraham). Yet, in order to benefit from Shabbos Nachamu, we must understand what nechomah is and how to spend this annual gift.
A bochur once approached Rav Shmuel of Zelichov with complaints of depression and negative thoughts. In those days, no one thought to seek medical attention from psychologists, but the mashgiach suggested that he study the 26 chapters of Yeshayahu from 40 until 66 which constitute the haftoros of consolation. He explained that these are eternal sources of comfort for Klal Yisroel as a whole and for every individual (Naharei Aish, selection No. 80, and Yagdil Torah, Devorim, page 148).
What, indeed, is the message the novi offers us in these uplifting 26 sections?
Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (Kedushas Levi, New Selections, page 527) suggests that all the consolation is wrapped up in the single wonderful word “ami – My nation,” when the novi relates that Hashem calls us His nation. It is enough that we know that not only has Hashem not rejected us, but He still considers us His very own, with all the love and attention that He lavished upon us when the Bais Hamikdosh stood in all its splendor. The reason that this is such a powerful statement is that although we may feel as if we have found a place to live, daven, learn Torah and be happy, Hashem, kevyachol, is still homeless. He wanted a “dira batachtonim” (Tanchuma, Naso 16), a home in the lower world, and He has been driven out of it. And yet, we are His and He loves us. That, says the Berditchever, is the very essence of nechomah.
But there is much more. We must examine the most common form of consolation, nichum aveilim, for a deeper understanding of the nature of the Shiva Dinechemta, the seven weeks of consolation leading to our return into Hashem’s good graces with Shabbos Shuvah and the Yomim Noraim.
First of all, it is important to remember that the halacha (Yoreh Deah 376:2) clearly forbids one paying a shivah call to commiserate with the mourner by saying, “What can you do? You can’t change the reality.” This is considered to be outright blasphemy, since it implies that if we could, we would change the will of Hashem. Instead, the Shulchan Aruch concludes, we must accept the will of the Al-mighty with love. The first level of nechomah is therefore to convey to the aveilim that Hashem loves them, and what happened, tragic though it may it be, is for the best.
Secondly, Shlomo Hamelech teaches us (Koheles 7:2) that “it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting.” Why exactly is it better? Most people, if asked, would say that they would much rather attend a festive wedding than visit a house of mourning.
Rav Moshe Scheinerman (Ohel Moshe, Badei Nechomah, page 328) quotes Rav Dovid Leibowitz zt”l as saying that during a shivah, everyone recites stories of the deceased’s spiritual greatness. No one relates how many cars he owned or how much stock he amassed. It is only his tzedakah and chesed that are brought up in his honor. This conveys to everyone that there is a goal in life higher than material possessions and monetary achievements. The novi, too, comforts us with the realization that although we lost a precious jewel, the physical Bais Hamikdosh, we still have a mikdash me’at, the miniature Bais Hamikdosh, which is represented by our shuls and botei medrash.
Thirdly, Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l (Bereishis 6:7, Shemos 32:12) explains that the word nechomah stems from the root nacheim, which often means to change one’s thinking completely. In other words, the purpose of nechomah is to alter someone’s attitude or perspective. In the case of an aveil over a personal loss, it is to bring him to acceptance of something he may be unwilling or even unable to accept. In the case of a national loss – such as the Bais Hamikdosh – it is to offer a perspective about the purpose of the tragedy.
One such perspective on the churban might be the words of Chazal that “Hashem poured out His wrath on the sticks and stones” (Eichah Rabbah 4:17). The Malbim (Yirmiyahu 4:28) explains that the destruction of the physical Bais Hamikdosh actually constitutes a nechomah, since it became clear that Hashem loved Klal Yisroel so much that He allowed His house to be destroyed instead of them.
As Rav Scheinerman points out (page 330), this is illustrated by the words of the Shela Hakadosh (notes to Pesachim 50) that one who is performing nichum aveilim should “console the mourner to the point that he causes him to smile (yismach veyiheyu ponim yafos).” Since we indeed cannot and should not change anything, our job is to change the perspective so that the mourner feels that even the seemingly worst can be accepted as something that is ultimately for the best.
In the cosmic sense, this is the churban Bais Hamikdosh. When we gently console the mourner with the ancient words “HaMakom yenacheim…,” we are in effect saying that only the Creator of the world can console you, since only He fully understands why this has happened, just as we cannot fathom the national tragedy of the churban without understanding all the factors that went into the decision for it to happen. All we can know for sure is that we are, thank G-d, alive due to its destruction.
We are now in somewhat of a position to understand the novi Yeshaya’s words of solace to Klal Yisroel. The opening words of this week’s consolation, “Nachamu nachamu ami – Comfort, comfort, My people,” are famously explicated by the Medrash (Yalkut, Yirmiyahu 312) with the words, “Just as she suffered doubly, so shall she be comforted doubly.” Among the many interpretations of these words, Rav Asher Weiss (Minchas Asher, Tishah B’Av, page 295) raises a number of issues. First of all, how can it be that Klal Yisroel suffers “kiflayim – double”? Surely not every sin requires the double penalty of a robber. Secondly, what exactly is the nature of a double consolation?
Rav Weiss answers that Klal Yisroel, throughout our long difficult golus, has suffered many trials and tribulations. However, in addition to the actual pain and affliction, we also experienced the horrific sensed of abandonment arising from Hashem’s “hester Ponim – hidden Face.” He offers a striking example of suffering where Hashem made His presence known, with the result of a reduction of the actual pain involved. Yosef Hatzaddik is sold by his brothers, a terrifying test and ordeal for the seventeen-year-old victim. Yet, Hashem performs a quiet miracle, wherein the Arabs to whom he has been sold are carrying sweet-smelling spices instead of the usual malodorous oils they generally transport. This is a message to Yosef that Hashem will be with him wherever he is taken. However, as we sadly know, Klal Yisroel has been in many places and situations where there was no sign of the Divine Presence. On the contrary, in Crusades and Inquisitions, Holocausts and other churbanos, they often felt abandoned in endless purgatory.
That is the double message of the novi’s promise. We suffered doubly because our lives were made miserable, but more importantly because we could not understand where our Father was or why He was allowing this agony. Here the novi promises that not only will our torment end, but we will be shown a vision of our past anguish that will dramatically demonstrate that Hashem was with us all along. It was all for the best. We will know for certain retroactively that our Father did what He needed to do, just as a loving parent must sometimes take a child to a physician who will inflict pain. At the time, it is incomprehensible and angering to a child. But later, perhaps in adulthood, the child will appreciate the parent’s intervention.
Rav Weiss adds that this concept explains a cryptic Gemara (Pesachim 50a). We recite several times a day, “On that day, Hashem’s Name will be One.” The Gemara asks, “Is it not One already? The answer is that in this world we make the blessing hatov vehameitiv on good things and Dayan Ha’emes on bad. But in the World to Come, we will only recite hatov vehameitiv.” For centuries, the question has been raised: Is it only the brocha that changes? Does this mean that in the World to Come evil things will happen?
Rav Weiss answers that indeed nothing evil will occur in the World to Come. However, we will recite a hatov vehameitiv on many things upon which we uttered the blessing Dayan Ha’emes. However, now we will understand that it was all for the best and it will require a new brocha.
Shabbos Nachamu and the other seven weeks of nechomah are a lesson plan in how to view our personal, collective and national lives. When we are fortunate, we experience Hashem in our lives directly. When we don’t, we look to the novi and our gedolim through the ages to guide us to see the unseen. But ultimately, we must know that the time is soon approaching when we will experience only happiness and joy, while all the past suffering will be transformed into the healing and remedy it was all along. Only now, we will see the light shining through every moment of our history.