The kindest words of all
“Hear, O Israel”: The
“go-to” prayer for Jews
since back in desert days.
- Ron Kaplan
August 1, 2012
The rabbis warn us against comforting mourners “while their dead still lie before them.” But frequently, especially in tragic situations, our dead seem always to lie before us. Their images do not gracefully retire for the night; in our mind’s eye, there they still are, playing by our side, holding us in their arms, or watching us take our first stumbling steps. No words can fill the emptiness of knowing that those days are gone forever.
To make matters worse, other people’s patience runs thin when we are unable to cut our grief conveniently short. “Move on,” they say. “Meet someone new, plan a trip, get a job.” Do they think we haven’t tried? We would love to move on, but how can we when the dead insist on “still lying before us?”
The rabbis say also, “As God comforts mourners, so should you,” meaning not just that we ought to console mourners because God does, but that when we comfort them, we should do it God’s way — a divine strategy of comfort that arrives this week, with Shabbat Nahamu (the “Sabbath of Comfort”). In the wake of the Temple’s destruction, God advises Isaiah, “Comfort my people.”
The command (nahamu) is in the plural, as if God is addressing all of Israel, not just Isaiah. “You, Israel, take comfort,” God implies — not, “You, Isaiah, give” it. Therein lies the secret of consolation. We can help people take it; words never quite manage to give it.
The fear of not knowing how to give comfort runs deep in most of us; we even go so far as to avoid comforting mourners altogether because we fear we will not say the right thing. But there is often nothing to be said at all. Comfort is not a matter of delivering some wisdom that will make things better. We can neither explain the unexplainable nor advise the impossible. We can never explain away someone else’s grief; any advice will likely fail.
How, then, was Israel supposed to take comfort from nahamu? Hasidic tradition answers that question by looking at the whole phrase, “Nahamu ami,” “Take comfort, my people.” Note the word “my.” Why didn’t God just say, “Take comfort” or “Take comfort, Israel”? Why specify, “My people”? “The people needed most to hear ‘My,’” says Rabbi Boruch, the grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov. “They needed God’s assurance: ‘You remain My people. Even in your grief. I will not abandon you. You are not alone.’”
The ultimate terror of human life is that we will be left alone, abandoned when we are most vulnerable. That may be why our own moment of dying frightens us, why we miss others whose presence was part of our lives, and why it is so cruel for our best friends to stop calling if we do not quickly recover from mourning the death of those we loved. Here is our worst nightmare come true: We are left doubly alone — abandoned first by the one who dies, and then again by those still living whom we thought we could count on.
So along comes Shabbat Nahamu with the kindest words: “We are never alone.”
In “Song of Songs,” God says to Israel, “Dodi li va’ani lo,” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” — words of the pact that binds God to us forever. Elsewhere, God promises. “Erashtich li l’olam,” “I will betroth you forever!” (Hosea 2:21). Forever! When our loved ones die, God never says, “Move on.” Instead, we hear, “Take comfort. I am yours and you are mine. I betroth you forever. Look for me, therefore, even when you grieve, for I am there, somewhere, somehow, at your side.”
People report the signs of God’s presence in subtle ways: momentary tranquility in the still of night or a glimpse of a larger mystical truth, our kinship with all that is. More immediately, when friends do manage to remain loyal, we may feel God’s touch in their continuing embrace, see God’s reflection in their eyes. A hint of God may be found where we least expect it: a split-second’s certainty that our loneliness, though painful, is not the final word.
Nahamu’s message is all we have to give, but it is enough: not advice, but “being there,” and saying, like God, “You are not alone. God waits with you, patiently understanding what you go through. And so do we. From that, nahamu, take comfort.”
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author or editor of 35 books, including the series “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), and winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His latest book is All These Vows: Kol Nidre (Jewish Lights).