Nachamu: Fly Thought, on Golden Wings

For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ July 19, 2013

(Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves at the Lviv Opera)

I didn't want to write a drash this week. Didn't have it in me. I was away last week having an adventure for my husband's birthday, and came back to pull together the last details of our community-wide Tisha B'Av commemoration. Tisha B'Av, the 9th of Av, marks the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. And also the destruction of Temple v.2.0 by the Romans in 70 CE. And then every expulsion and exile and massacre and catastrophe enacted upon our people since then. On Tisha B'Av, we read Eychah, the book of Lamentations, and we imagine ourselves sitting in the ruins of the proud city of Jerusalem, and we weep.

So the commemoration happened but it took a lot out of me. The evening didn't go exactly how I'd envisioned, and I experienced angst about that during. And beforehand. And after. And the next morning. But on the whole, it seemed to work for many people, myself included in large part. During the ceremony, as attendees got in touch with the losses they were still lamenting, both current grief and old grief that still haunts footsteps and decisions and relationships, I also rediscovered grief that I hadn't noticed and articulated in a long time, and I did so, and I was exhausted by it.

So as the holiday ended, I found myself sitting in the ashes, not of Jerusalem, but of Tisha B'Av itself, my creative spirit shell-shocked and my imagination immobile. I did my day-to-day things: meetings, more meetings, and then more meetings. I could do things. What was hard to do was to open up and feel and let my thoughts take flight again. I felt like I had no more lift left in me.

The Book of Lamentations doesn't give us guidance in this matter. It is not a "how to get over grief" self-help book. It is a book of full-on despair. In your independent bookstore you will find it in the Desolation section. Read it and weep. It is Lamentations, not the Inferno, that should open with Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate. "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

There is no comfort in Eychah. And at the time it was written - in the wake of that first unimaginable national Destruction - perhaps no comfort was available. As Rabbi Shimon says in Pirkei Avot, "Do not comfort your friend while his dead lay before him." In other words, in grief that is fresh and unchecked, there is no meaningful comfort to be offered. One must be ready to be comforted for comfort to be of use.

Psalm 137, like Lamentations, also describes the people's grief for the loss of the Temple, but from the perspective of the Jews carried off into exile, rather than those left behind in Jerusalem:

By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion. On the willows we hung our harps, for our captors required of us song and our tormentors mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion." But how can we sing Adonai's song in a foreign land?

This is another beautiful and lifelike depiction of sadness and despair. How can we entertain when we grieve? How can we be creative, how can we be happy, ever again?

It's true, our grief marks us for a very long time. We carry scars on our psyches that are decades old. And our suffering draws our attention more than our joy does. Our suffering is long lasting; our joy is quick to be dismissed. What does Joni sing with Psalm-like rhythm?

Pleasure moves on too early and trouble is too slow. 

This is for a couple reasons. Trouble lasts longer and draws more attention because trouble tends to complicate our lives. Going into exile uproots you. Re-learning to live alone is a tremendous and ongoing struggle. Even just filing an insurance claim for the fender bender is time consuming and frustrating. Waiting for justice that doesn't come can imprison our attention solidly for long sentences of time. Dwelling in our suffering is natural and par for the course.

Not only that, but letting go of our grief is, on some levels, undesirable. It can feel like a betrayal of whatever it was that we loved and lost. We want to hold on to our pain as a demonstration of our loyalty. How can I, sitting on the banks of the Euphrates, sing Adonai's song, even though it is Adonai's song, without it being a betrayal of Jerusalem?

Jews are teased about - and we tease ourselves about - our attachment to our suffering, about its inevitable mundaneness. We joke about one Jew asking another, "How are you?" And the other saying, "Terrible, thank God." But we all know, it is not just Jews who suffer or who can be trapped by suffering.

So what is the way out of this bind? Must we be stuck? Is there no comfort allowed us ever?

This week's Shabbat, immediately following Tisha B'Av, is called Shabbat Nachamu. The Shabbat of Comfort. It is named after the opening words of the week's haftarah portion, from the Book of Isaiah, which goes like this: Nachamu, nachamu ami. "Take comfort, take comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem and declare to her that her term of service is over." (Isaiah 40:1)

So here at last are words of instruction. Take comfort by speaking fondly, lovingly, to what has been lost. This is a beautiful idea. So that we don't harden into statues of grief and anger, we continue to express our love to what we loved and lost, even if our longing for it can no longer be fulfilled. "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem."

In the opera Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi gives voice to the Hebrew exiles standing on the shore in Babylon. They deliver what has become the most famous choral piece in the operatic repertoire, the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. They sing:

Va pensiero sull'ali d'orate

Va, ti posa, sui clivi, sui colli,

Ove olezzano tepide e molli

L'aure dolci del suolo natal.

"Fly, thought, on wings of gold; go settle on the slopes and the hills, where, soft and mild, the sweet airs of our native land smell fragrant."

The exiles in Verdi, unlike the exiles in Psalm 137, don't refuse to sing. They actively engage their thoughts of Jerusalem. They imagine it in its beauty; they send their thoughts there with love. Their comfort, if there is to be comfort, does not come from silence but from song. They even protest to the very harps that the Psalm portrays as hanging, untouched:

Arpa d'or dei fatidici vati,

Perché muta dal salice pendi?

Le memorie nel petto raccendi,

ci favella del tempo che fu! 

"Golden harp of the prophets, why do you hang mute from the willows? Rekindle the memories in our hearts and speak to us of times gone by."

Verdi's Hebrew slaves are dwelling inside the loss but not squarely inside the suffering. They establish loving memory as the key response to loss. And, as is suggested by this week's haftarah, Nachamu, they speak tenderly to Jerusalem.

One more thought on moving on from destruction. This week's Torah portion, V'etchanan, includes Moshe's repetition of the Ten Commandments, followed shortly thereafter by the Shema - Moshe's voice saying "Hear O Israel" - and then, significantly, the V'ahavta.

V'ahavta. "You will love." In this very week where we feel the Destruction most deeply, we are advised to love. Advised, not commanded. V'ahavta doesn't mean "love!" in an imperative sense. It means "you will love." Is this a prophecy? A prediction? Or is it a reassurance, that out of the places of suffering comes deeper and deeper love. "You will love again." V'ahavta.

The Ten Commandments sit there in the portion, sticking out awkwardly, at least to my mind. It is a terrible week to be reminded of them, this week of lamentation and suffering. These are in fact commandments, given in the imperative. "Honor your father and mother." "Don't murder." "Don't steal." "Don't covet." But these are commandments habitually honored in the breach. How much of our civilization is built on greed and theft and murder? Leading in turn to new destructions both great and small. I don't think we can be expected to read the Ten Commandments this week without feeling despair.

But v'ahavta. Not a command. Not a demand. An outcome. "You will love." If you can survive the loss, you will do so by loving. You will love what you lost. And you will love what remains. You will love this creation and maybe, sometimes, the Creator implied by it. You will love your joy, without feeling guilty doing so, because joy is a gift and is ephemeral and it deserves your attention as much as your sadness does. In your suffering you will find new depths that will become available for love. You will love all of this: with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. This will happen. V'ahavta.

We are scarred by Destructions, each of us. The ones that sent us into Babylon and into Europe and to America. We are scarred by the injuries of our childhoods. By the loss of loved ones too young. By love that didn't work out. By longing that wasn't quite realized. We are all justified and allowed to weep. And - we are encouraged, once more, when it seems unlikely or futile or beside the point, to love again. Love, our loving, is not meant to replace the loss. But it is comfort nonetheless.

Nachamu, nachamu ami. Be comforted, be comforted my people.

V'ahavta. And you will love.


I am always indebted to Rabbi Eli Cohen for always knowing what in a parashah will interest me!