Nachamu Nachamu Finding comfort in Parshat Veetchanan

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Shabbat morning

(I opened by singing Nachamu from Safam
Isaiah 40:
נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם
Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God.
דַּבְּר֞וּ עַל־לֵ֤ב יְרֽוּשָׁלִַ֙ם֙ וְקִרְא֣וּ אֵלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֤י מָֽלְאָה֙ צְבָאָ֔הּ כִּ֥י נִרְצָ֖ה עֲוֺנָ֑הּ כִּ֤י לָקְחָה֙ מִיַּ֣ד יְהוָ֔ה כִּפְלַ֖יִם בְּכָל־חַטֹּאתֶֽיהָ׃ 
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, And declare to her That her term of service is over, That her iniquity is expiated; For she has received at the hand of the LORD Double for all her sins.

From generation to generation, these words have inspired. After the sadness and mourning of Tisha B’Av, they tell us that we are not just our sins. We are not our mistakes. We have the opportunity to start afresh--but with the wisdom of our past experience.

This week’s Torah reading, Ve’etchanan, is so resonant today. We are so in need of new opportunities, of mourning our losses and celebrating our triumphs. AND we get them! The weeks to come, the High Holidays are our chance to consider our direction and move forward positively. Here at CBI, we are taking our 90+ years of experience as a community and imagining what will come next.

My teacher, Rabbi Mychal Springer, a former associate dean of the rabbinical school and founder of the Center of Pastoral Care at JTS, wrote the Seminary Torah commentary this week:

  • All of Torah is shaped by the knowledge of where the story ends—not with the people of Israel entering the Land, but with them situated on the other side of the Jordan. They will enter the Land in the book of Joshua, but that is not part of the Torah. The Torah ends with the not yet, with the longing, with an experience of incompletion. There are profound theological implications to this ending. We don’t focus on triumph, on everything being right. We make space for brokenness. And perhaps the story of yetziat Mitzrayim, being redeemed from Egypt, is told in this way to keep us connected to the personal story of Moshe Rabbenu. It is Moshe Rabbenu who is most acutely affected by not being able to enter the Land. In this week’s parashah we encounter Moshe’s anguish in a powerful way. The parashah begins with his plea:
וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־ה' בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר
  • I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying, “O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” (Deut. 3:23–25)

Rabbi Springer continues by looking at various medieval commentators, elucidating Moses’ mindset and how God offers comfort in a very unique way. The end result is that God taught Moses how to change his perspective, to be thankful for the gift of his life and leadership, rather than the loss of never entering the land. God shows Moses that the blessing is the relationship, the love, the connection to one another--both human and divine. This is the ultimate blessing of living in community. We are not alone.

In my chaplaincy experience, the most challenging moments always come from loneliness. People feel a lack of support and they become afraid. In their illness, in their fear, they feel vulnerable--just like Moses. They fear failure. They have done everything right, and yet things didn’t work out the way they had hoped. Think about Moses--over and over again he has helped the people, from the top to the bottom he has offered support and helped them make decisions. Yet what happens? They rebel over and over in different ways. They turn away from God. They sin. They make poor choices. As parents and teachers we can feel this same failure. We see our children make mistakes, yet we know they need to learn.

Moses is exhausted in this parsha. Yet, amidst this exhaustion and this loss, we have the Aseret Hadibrot. We have one of the most important moments in Jewish history retold--the revelation at Sinai--God speaking directly to the people and sharing the greatest gift--the Torah--the Brit--the Covenant. Ultimately, the most important part of this Covenant is not the words, but the relationship.

אָֽנֹכִי֙ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃
I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage:

This Shabbat is really God and Moses’ greatest hits. We also have Shema and V’ahavta. Again and again, we are reminded of this relationship. We are reminded that we are not alone. That even in our darkest moments, we have a source of comfort. We have the Holy One.

And we have one another.

What is a synagogue? It is not just the Greek house of assembly. Rather it is a kehillah kedoshah. It is a holy community. It is a place where we gather TOGETHER. It is not just the building but the people within. It is the shiva meal we make. It is the kiddish joyfully baked. It is the schnapps and the simchas and the grape juice and the love.

More than any words, a chaplain, a rabbi, a friend, a community member brings a reminder that we are not alone. We many feel alone, but we are not alone. No matter our diagnosis, or our friend’s diagnosis, we have one another. We have community. We have the Holy One.

I repeat myself intentionally. At the conclusion of every funeral; when we leave a shiva house; when we welcome someone to Friday night services during shiva, we say to them:

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
HaMakom Yenaḥem Etḥem BeToḥ Shaar Avlai Zion V’Yerushalayim
May you be comforted among ALL the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem

We ask God to bring comfort. We remind the mourner that in that moment, they are not alone in mourning their loved one. We remind them that in homes across the world, others are also thinking of the ones that they lost. We remind them that they are part of a community, that God and we are with them.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, my rock and redeemer--and may they bring the people in this holy community peace. Shabbat Shalom!