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Finding Comfort in Hesed – Shabbat Nahamu 5780

Two days ago we observed the low point of the Jewish year, the fast of Tish’ah BeAv., the ninth day of the month of Av. It is, of course, a day on which we remember all of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history: the destructions of the First and Second Temples, Jerusalem laid waste, exile, dispersion, expulsion, and genocide. It is the only full, 25-hour fast aside from Yom Kippur, and still holds a great resonance for many of us, even though most of the events we recall on this day happened hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Ophel Archaeological Park, at the southern end of the Western Wall, the exterior wall of the Temple Mount plaza, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE

It was difficult on this particularly challenging Tish’ah BeAv to think only of the past. Our present moment is filled with so many things to mourn: more than 154,000 dead in America, and approaching 700,000 dead around the world; the social isolation and economic fallout and joblessness caused by the pandemic; ongoing street protests against police brutality; federal troops on the ground in some cities, lobbing tear gas and arresting American citizens; the undeniable rise of anti-Semitism.

Where are the words of comfort for this time? 

On Thursday morning, as we chanted the Shaharit / morning service in mournful tones, we recited the haftarah / prophetic reading unique to Tish’ah BeAv, words from the prophet Jeremiah (8:23), who is arguably the best prophet when it comes to grief and loss:

מִֽי־יִתֵּ֤ן רֹאשִׁי֙ מַ֔יִם וְעֵינִ֖י מְק֣וֹר דִּמְעָ֑ה וְאֶבְכֶּה֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה אֵ֖ת חַֽלְלֵ֥י בַת־עַמִּֽי׃

Oh, that my head were water, My eyes a fount of tears! Then would I weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.

Water, of course, is not only associated with tears; it is also the source of life. Jeremiah is requesting not only the ability to cry with abandon, but also to live and give life. Water also suggests, in a more spiritual sense, the sustaining salvation, the life-force that is Divine in nature (cf. Isaiah 12:3, which we say at havdalah every Saturday night, as Shabbat draws to a close: Ush’avtem mayim besasson mimmay’anei hayeshua / Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.) Who will give me the spiritual sustenance to face the great challenges of this broken world? Where will I find, in my parched soul, the nourishment to rise again tomorrow morning and confront yet another day of devastation? How can I care for those around me, when I am not sure I can even care for myself?

On this Shabbat Nahamu, this Shabbat of comfort, I ask, where is that comfort?

I think that it is only natural at this time to look heavenward, hands outstretched, and ask God directly for some kind of help. In the enduring words of Psalm 121:1, Esa einai el heharim, me-ayin yavo ezri / I lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come?

In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, our ancestors must have been devastated. Everything that they knew about the order of the world had changed effectively overnight. There would be no more sacrifices; there would be no more priesthood. The central pillar of their connection to God was gone.

Now, it may have taken nearly two millennia for us to be able to say this, but maybe the Romans did the Jews a sort of favor. Yes, you have heard me say this before: we now offer the words of our hearts and minds in place of animal sacrifices, surely a less-barbaric approach to worship, and definitely a form more palatable to vegetarians. Our tradition also became portable, decentralized, no longer tied to a particular place and building, and somewhat more democratic, not held in the hands of a few Kohanim / priests, but rather distributed amongst the scholars called rabbis, wherever they lived. 

But there is something more. In particular, the destruction of the Temple and the end of the sacrifice system gave us another path to forgiveness. Consider the following passage, which appears on the bottom of p. 14 if you have the classic Siddur Sim Shalom:

Avot deRabbi Natan 4:5

פעם אחת היה רבן יוחנן בן זכאי יוצא מירושלים והיה רבי יהושע הולך אחריו וראה בית המקדש חרב אר״י אוי לנו על זה שהוא חרב מקום שמכפרים בו עונותיהם של ישראל. א״ל בני אל ירע לך יש לנו כפרה אחרת שהיא כמותה ואיזה זה גמ״ח שנאמר כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח

Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him. Rabbi Yehoshua saw the Holy Temple destroyed, and he lamented: ‘Woe to us, for this is destroyed—the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven!’ Rabban Yohanan replied, “My child, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Gemilut hasadim, performing acts of lovingkindness, as it says, ‘For I desire hesed / lovingkindness, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). 

This charming story from the midrashic interpretation of Pirqei Avot called Avot deRabbi Natan is a classic rabbinic re-framing of Jewish life. Yes, the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple is destroyed, and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua were there to witness the destruction and to continue to see the ruins for some time after. Rabban YbZ, despite having been there for the cataclysm (and, as the midrash tells us, smuggled out by his students in a coffin), is not fazed by the loss of the center of the Jewish world. Instead, he reminds R. Yehoshua that, despite the fact that we can no longer offer sacrifices, we have another means of bringing about teshuvah, of repairing ourselves in the wake of transgression: gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness.

And to put a fine point on it, YbZ quotes the book of Hosea, written eight centuries before any of these events take place. The Qadosh Barukh Hu (Holy Blessed One) does not desire our animal sacrifices. Do you think God needs us to burn animals on an altar? What God really needs from us is for humans to go out of their way to treat others respectfully; to go the extra mile to take care of those in need; to commit to tzedaqah, charitable acts of righteousness; to literally clothe the naked and feed the hungry and house the homeless and comfort the bereaved and free the oppressed.

Rabban YbZ did not quote my favorite “refrigerator-magnet” verse from the prophet Micah (6:8), but he could have:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃ 

“[God] has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.”

Hevreh, I must say that I have been thinking a lot lately about what the world will be like, in a couple months (let’s hope it’s not too much more than that) when a vaccine for this virus is available, and enough people get the vaccine so that our lives can return to something resembling normalcy.

Will we continue to cautiously tiptoe around one another, maintaining our social distance? Will we avoid gathering in public places: theaters, restaurants, libraries, synagogues, like we used to, for fear of aerosolized viruses? Will I be able to shake anybody’s hands ever again?

Or will we all run outdoors and give hugs to passing strangers? Will we commit ourselves anew to offering our hands in assistance to neighbors in need? Will we reach out with both arms to others as we do justice, love goodness, and walk modestly with God?

The way out of our current state is not by reading kinnot, poems of lament, like the ones recited on Tish’ah BeAv. On the contrary: the kinnot, and indeed the Book of Eikhah / Lamentations that we read on Wednesday evening, the fasting, the self-denial, the eschewing of leather shoes, signs of luxury are there to remind us that there is an end to suffering; that suffering, in fact, precedes redemption. That we can actually bring about the comfort we seek by recommitting to gemilut hasadim

We will be redeemed. But we do not have to wait for a vaccine to do hesed right now! Yes, gemilut hasadim includes some activities that must be performed in person, and maybe some of those things should not be done right now. But if you have money, if you still have a job, you can give tzedaqah. Find the organizations that are doing good work for people, and donate. Seek out the institutions that you want to ensure will still be here when all is said and done (synagogues, for example, which rely on charitable donations to survive), and make a donation.
We have a means to bring about redemption. Let us recommit to hesed to ensure that our world grows in justice and goodness, so that we may continue to walk modestly with God. That will surely bring us some comfort, even as we remain apart from one another.

Safam’s “Nahamu, Nahamu” performed by alumni of the collegiate Jewish a capella group Pizmon

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/1/2020.)