Shabbat Nachamu 5780 – Rabbi Howard Cooper

Sermon 1st August 2020

Nachamu, nachamu, ami: “Comfort, oh comfort, My people, yomar Elohaychem “says your God”, dabru al-lev “speak tenderly – ‘to the heart’…” (Isaiah 40: 1-2).

These must be some of the most powerful, the most poignant, the most – yes – tender, heartfelt, words in the whole of prophetic literature. But who would need to hear these words, these sentiments? Who would be needing such comfort, such tenderness?

What state of mind would we be in – of distress, or anxiety, or trauma – what kinds of hurt would be enduring – of deprivation or loss or pain – to be in need of such comfort, such tender-hearted care and attention?

The first audience for these words, this poetic balm to the soul, was of course the Hebrew people, in Babylonian exile, two and half millennia ago. But by the time the rabbis decided to integrate this material into the annual cycle of readings in the synagogue, more than half a millennium had passed, centuries in which the need to offer comfort to the Jewish people, a people oppressed and suffering, in exile, had become a cyclical event.

And in the 1500 and more years since Shabbat Nachamu became part of this calendar of post Tisha  B’av and pre-High Holy Day readings, the need for comfort, the need to be spoken to with tender-hearted concern, has rarely been redundant. And even for us, in our relative security and with our relative sense of well-being, even if we don’t think that the Jewish people collectively need words of comfort and tenderness at this point in history – and that’s an open question, but I’m going to leave that aside right now – even if we distance ourselves from that, who amongst us as individuals don’t hear these words “Comfort, oh comfort…speak tenderly to the heart”  and feel a keening sense, an ache of recognition, of some deep, maybe unspoken, sense of needing to receive comfort in our own lives, for our own lives?

And maybe that need for comfort – acknowledged or unacknowledged – is only more pressing in these Covid times, I don’t know.

So what is – to return to the question I opened up at the beginning of the service – what is it that does comfort us? How do we get comfort? Where from? What from? This elusive and precious experience – comfort, consolation?

Here I should really – if we were in the room together I would do this, but we aren’t, so I can’t – I’d ask you – tell me: where does comfort come from in your life? And where does God fit in, if at all? But failing in the possibility of collectively assembling some responses, all I can do is list some ways, share what I have come up with, and you’ll see if it resonates with your own experience, or not.

So: what comforts us? Let’s start with what’s fundamental. Isn’t one thing that comforts us the knowledge, the experience, that we are loved? Whether that comes from family, or friends, we want to feel that are loved – and loveable.  That comforts us. Closely followed by the need to feel cared for – that too gives comfort. And them close to that, we need to feel, I think, remembered: that can bring comfort.  And close to that, we need to feel well thought of, that can bring comfort, well thought of in terms of who we are, what we are, our personal qualities, our achievements as well ,sometimes, to know that we are valued : this can be a source of deep comfort. To know that when people think about us – and when we think about ourselves as well – we can say that by the end of our lives we will be leaving the world a little better for our having been in it, that we’ve tipped the scales, just a fraction, in the direction of life.

In many of these things – feeling loved, cared for, remembered, thought about, thought well of – we are dependent on others. There’s a humility attached to realising how dependent we are on others to provide us with comfort. Through family, friendship, through community, we can receive some comfort. “Comfort, oh comfort, my people”.

But of course many other things can offer us comfort, can speak tenderly to our hearts. We may have a favourite piece of music, or a painting, or a poem, or a story, or a place in nature, or a memory, or a piece of liturgy, or a memento – a stone, a blanket, a letter – that we cherish, that offers comfort, that offers consolation, that speaks tenderly to our souls. Some might say that God speaks through all these things. Some might demur from that. It doesn’t matter in the end.

We all need comfort. Nachamu. That’s what makes this text from Isaiah so powerful, so pertinent in every age, and for all people, Jew and non-Jew alike. We all need comfort. Nachamu.

So far so good. This text speaks to us still. We use it to think about what brings us comfort, including our tradition, our heritage. But hidden in this text is, I thin k, something else, something a bit more subversive. Not only do we all need comfort, to be the recipients of comfort, but what this text reminds us – and this reminder is encoded in the ambiguity of its poetry in the Hebrew, but you can get it in the English as well – what it also points to is that it is not only that we all need comfort, we are not only the objects of the sentence, but we the people are also the subjects of the sentence. “’Comfort, oh comfort, my people’, says your God” is also addressed to the people as a role, a task, a destiny even: they are the ones who are to bring comfort, to others. Listen to it again: “Comfort, comfort, my people…” – the prophet reminds the people that this is what they are here to do, to do the comforting, and not only to be those who need it.

For two thousand years this text has been read as one offering comfort to the people, in their exile, in their hardship, in their own oppressed or straightened circumstances. We are always, and understandably, whatever our historical or personal circumstances, so much in need of comfort – wherever it comes from – that we have read this text through one angle of vision. But all the time this other angle, this other dimension, has been waiting to be liberated, to be seen: that we can be the bearers of comfort for others, and that this is integral to what it means to be a people, the Jewish people. It’s not just a need nachamu – it’s also the vision of our task, nachamu…

And maybe reading it this way can offer another source of comfort for us: that God has entrusted us, so to speak, with the capacity to do this work; and that the double verb has a deeper meaning – that in bringing comfort to others, we are ourselves comforted. We have a role, we have a value, we have a purpose. This is our life: to receive comfort and to give comfort. And to dance between the two.

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