From one Shabbat to the next, we traveled from moments of al eleh ani bochiya (for these I weep) to nachamu nachamu ami (take comfort, take comfort, my people). Between these two points in Jewish time, the pain peaks with Tisha b’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, when we sit on the floor, when we read Lamentations, when prophets and poets weave the tragedies of Jewish history into a tapestry of texts.
We read Eicha, the Scroll of Lamentations, a word which, with the switch of two vowels, can also be read as ayeka (where are You?), a primal cry from the depths, a question to G-d emanating from the Jewish people’s sense of loneliness and abandonment in their moments of anguish over the destructions they have witnessed, as they were herded into exile like “lost sheep with no resting place” (Jeremiah).
In the five chapters of Eicha we travel on a journey with the many voices of the destruction.
Chapter I allows us to witness the post-Temple destruction, seeing Jerusalem in total desolation and agony. She is mourning, beyond any consolation.
Chapter II summons actual graphic images of the dead — the brutal, grotesque low points that the great destruction has wrought, with the people seeing G-d as the inflicter of these painful scenes.
In Chapter III we encounter the suffering of one individual — a microcosmic focus — as a window into the story of a people. It’s like learning about the Holocaust by talking to one survivor because talking about six million victims is impossible. The story of this one individual in serves as the encounter between a palpable sense of defeat and hope.
Chapter IV again presents the atrocities perpetuated throughout the destruction, but this time the perspective is different. Rather than G-d as the inflicter of the pain, it is the enemy.
Finally, Chapter V is a turning to the hope of rehabilitation and repair beyond the destruction. There is hope, after all. We conclude Eicha by turning to G-d.
Eicha is a scroll penned by the prophet, the messenger, the scribe of the destruction, none other than the tragic, weeping Jeremiah, a prophet so pained that he cursed the day he was born. He was the accursed witness to the all-encompassing destruction of his people. He was a man so full of contradictions, the ultimate prophet, who advocated on behalf of both his G-d and his nation.
The book of Jeremiah presents the history, yet it is also rich with intimate dialogues, accounts of walking the streets of Jerusalem, warnings, burnt scrolls, of a book drenched with the tears of matriarchs. All of this is compressed it into the profound eulogy: Eicha.
How do we emerge from such desperate, overwhelming and crushing circumstances? The Temple is in ruins. The people exiled. The musical harps of Jerusalem, dead, hung to dry. The foreboding prophecies and warnings of Jeremiah have come to pass, and tears are shed on the rivers of Babylon.
The midrash not only conveys the people’s weeping, and Jeremiah’s weeping, but G-d himself weeps with the exiled Jewish people.
And then a new Shabbat comes, and with it the prophet Isaiah, opening the Haftorah with those famous words of comfort: nachamu nachamu ami (take comfort, take comfort, My people)! These words initiate the seven Haftorahs of consolation that will accompany us to Rosh Hashanah. They even found their way into Handel’s “Messiah.”
Nachamu nachamu … the comfort is amplified. The consolation is echoed twice. As the text states, the wounds were meted out to Jerusalem in double measure, so consolation mirrors the suffering. Comfort is doubly needed. According to ibn Ezra, the double wording conveys a sense of urgency, of the desperation of Jerusalem and her people.
And so it is that Shabbat Nachamu has served as the balm for the wounds we remembered on Tisha B’Av, for all we lost and suffered as a people throughout our difficult history. There is a softness, a healing, a comforting, for the Jewish people, after all. Yesh tikva, “there is hope.”
But the midrash reads these words nachamu nachamu ami differently. The midrash gives voice to none other than G-d himself. G-d voices His pain.
He is crying out to be comforted Himself. He has lost His home, His counterpart in this physical world below. He has lost the anchor of His people in His land. G-d himself, the Shechina, feels alone, abandoned and bereft.
“Comfort Me, My people,” says G-d, according to this midrash. It is G-d Who is vulnerable, turning to the people. It is G-d Who is murmuring, beseeching to be comforted.
Unlike the first reading of the text, according to which the words are classically read as a request to G-d to comfort the Jewish people, in the midrash it becomes almost a meek, pained request to the Jewish people by G-d Himself.
Both the Jewish people and G-d are sufferers in this terrible destruction. It is unclear who the comforters are and who the comforted are.
Both G-d and the Jewish people experience both roles.
Like Jeremiah, who embodied a duality, in relationship with both his people and his G-d, similarly within the comfort is a duality. As in the doubling of the words themselves: nachamu, nachamu.
This image conjures an emotional layer of both G-d and the Jewish people, each needing one another, leaning on one another, comforting one another. This, in a sense, is the essence of Shabbat Nachamu.
n a chasidic reading of the phrase nachamu nachamu ami, another change in a vowel renders ami, “my people,” into imi, “with me.”
In moments of utter loss, there really are no words. These are moments beyond language, like Rachel the Matriarch’s tears for the exiles leaving Israel. Her tears, in contrast to the verbal pleas by our great leaders, are the catalyst to shift the stance of G-d, Who will ultimately return the Jewish people to its land. So the word imi, with me, enfolds and implies an empathic presence.
Maybe in these painful historic moments there really are no words of comfort to say to the Jewish people, but imi: I am still with you. And you are still with Me.
Take comfort in me, in me being with You, so to speak. And you are still My people. I am here.
Sometimes just being there is the only comfort.
So says G-d, Nachamu nachamu ami/imi. As in Ruth’s words to Naomi, “your people are my people,” G-d says: ami/imi, My people, with Me.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News