Vaetchana: Nahamu – Consolation for What?
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Nahamu, as the haftara begins with the words, "nahamu nahamu ami" – "comfort My people." After observing mourning practices for three weeks, between Shiva Asar BeTamuz and Tisha BeAv, we begin a new period of consolation, marked by the haftarot of consolation (shiva d’nehamta). We must ask, however: What happened that we may begin to be comforted immediately after Tisha BeAv?
The famous chapter from Sefer Tehillim (137), "Al Neharot Bavel," relates the experience of the Jewish people who were exiled after the destruction of the Temple. The Jewish people describe how on their way to exile: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat; we also wept when we remembered Zion." The mizmor also describes how the Jewish people, who once sang praises to God, put away their instruments: "On willows (aravim) in its midst we hung our harps." This verse, of course, is somewhat curious. Why does the mizmor tell us that the hung their harps specifically on the willow trees (aravim)?
The mizmor then says tells how the Babylonians, after destroying Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash, and sending the remaining Jews to Babylonia, turn to the Jews: "For then our captors asked us for words of song, and our tormentors [asked us] mirth, "Sing for us of the song of Zion." In response, the Jewish people aid, "How shall we sing the song of the Lord on foreign soil?" Did the Babylonians really expect the Jewish people to sing them a song?
Let's discuss the exile, and then attempt to understand the Jewish people’s response, and the nehama (comfort) we feel this Shabbat.
It is hard to explain to Jews of America the meaning, and the experience of galut (Exile). America has freedoms, and rights, and even affluence. Jews can be found in all levels of the government, including even the Supreme Court. It’s similar to our experience on Pesah evening, when we say "now we are slaves, next year we will be free men." We do not feel like slaves, and we do not feel the exile.
The exiles have two faces, hinted to in the verse "Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau" (Bereishit 32:12).
At times, the face of exile is the face of "Esav." The exile of the past two thousand years has been the face of Esav- the face of persecution, of King Ferdinand, the Czar, and of Hitler. We are unfortunately familiar with that type of exile. There is, however, another type of exile, the face of "my brother." At times, the exile treats us like we are friends. During the French revolution, the national motto of France was coined: Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity). Napoleon treated the Jews as brothers, giving them all sorts of rights and privileges. This is another type of exile, possibly even more dangerous.
During the first type of exile, it is clear that we do not want to assimilate. We fully understand when say the blessing "shelo asani goy" each day. During the second exile, there is great confusion. The non-Jews are kind to us, and we receive rights, privileges, and opportunities. However, there are many dangers.
Our current exile in America is an example of the second type of galut. Jews have rights, professions, wealth, but they also have non-Jewish spouses and have assimilated. The intermarriage rate is well above 50%. That, compiled with the length of the exile, causes us to forget our traditions. This has affected our community as well. In the 1980’s God sent us the Jews of Halab (Aleppo Syria), to remind us of our traditions. They will give us another thirty years, and then, unfortunately, we will begin to forget those customs as well. We are turning the customs of America into "our customs."
On Sukkot we take four species: lulav, etrog, hadas and arava. The Rabbis tell us that these four species correspond to four types of Jews. The etrog is the sadik, the talmid hacham. He has a good smell, and is very beautiful- he has both Torah and misvot. The lulav, from the palm tree, has a good taste (i.e. it grows dates), but not smell, and the hadas has a good smell, but no taste. These two correspond to other types of Jews- some perform many misvot, while others have good deeds. The arava (willow), which has neither taste nor smell, represents the assimilated Jew. We spend the entire month of Tishre, from Rosh HaShana, through Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hoshana Rabba, and Simhat Torah, trying to transform ourselves from aravot to etrogim.
Let us return to the mizmor mentioned above. The Jews entered the exile of Babylonia, a melting- pot (bavel= a mixture). The verse describes how they "sat," i.e. they settled-in and became part of the society. However, even though they settled into Babylonia, the verse describes how the still cried. Why did they cry? They cried because they saw "willows," the Jews without Torah and misvot. And the non-Jews asked us to sing, and they couldn’t understand why we could not sing to God?! And we answered, how is it possible to sing to God when this seemingly wonderful exile, with all of the physical amenities, is causing such damage. They hung their harps on the willow trees.
This week we read the haftara of "nahamu nahamu ami." What changed after Tisha BeAv? The Alshich teaches that the third Beit HaMikdash is always being built. Every time we perform a mitzvah, we are slowly building the Temple. The Beit HaMikdash is built over many, many years, through the deeds of the Jewish people. One of these deeds is the mourning over the destruction of the previous Beit HaMikdash. The prophet tells the Jewish people that despite the destruction, the kernel, the root of the Beit HaMikdash is still there. Of course we are still in the exile, and we continue to cry, as we are aware of "the willows." However, after Tisha BeAv, in Heaven, we’ve come further in the process towards building the Beit HaMikdash and Yerushalayim, and we are able to be comforted, and return to our normal life, hopefully changed and willing to take further steps to bring us closer to the building of the Beit Hamikdash and the final redemption.