Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Walk Article


Shabbat Nachamu-5770

Rabbi David Walk


            Many years ago when I was teaching at the Hebrew Academy of Atlantic County in southern New Jersey, there was a very sweet young man who drank of the learning with an enthusiastic thirst.  One day we were discussing the tragedies of Tisha B'av and I mentioned that this day of national calamity doesn't end without the seeds of redemption being sown, because the Talmud (Jerusalem, Brachot 2:4) states that the Messiah will be born on this sad day.  The story goes on to state that the name of the Messiah will be Menachem, the one who comforts or consoles.  This kid jumped out his seat and yelled his joy that his Hebrew name is Menachem and that he was born on Tisha B'av.  This kid spent the rest of the day telling anyone who would listen (and some who weren't) that he was a prime candidate to become the long awaited Messiah.  The next day he came to school shattered.  That night he called his beloved grandmother with good news, but she burst the balloon with the minor detail that he was a Levite.  Messiah must come from the tribe of Yehuda, not the tribe of Levi.  Well, at least he had one great day.  I bring this up this week, because we end the fasting and mourning of Tisha B'av contemplating the brighter future of the Jewish nation.  This reflection can't be devoid of some thought of the Messianic Era.

            In reality that Talmudic passage contains an argument (What else would you expect?).  Even though Rabbi Yudan does explain that the name of Moshiach will be Menachem and that is an appropriate title for the one who will bring comfort to this tormented people.  However, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says  that the Moshiach's true name will be Tzemach.  This is based on the verse in Isaiah, and a shoot (tzemach) shall spring forth from the stem of Jesse (11:1).  Rabbi Chanina then states that really this isn't an argument at all, because both names have the same numerical value (Gematria, in this case 138).  In other words, the two names are different aspects of a unitary idea.   This is very much in keeping with the double nature of the comfort promised by Isaiah in this week's Haftorah, Comfort ye, Comfort ye, My people (40:1).  Sadly, this dual comfort follows dire warnings of double punishment.

            In this week's Torah reading we are informed that we will be doubly destroyed (Deuteronomy 4:26, Hebrew: hishamed tishamedun).  The famous commentary the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, 1550 –1619) immediately picks up on  this point.  Initially he asks, how can God punish us doubly?  That sends the unsettling message that God penalizes beyond the scope of the crime.  That's not our image of a compassionate God.  The answer is readily at hand.  It was stated in the second of the three Haftorot of troubles which precede Tisha B'av.  Yirmiyahu asserts that the Jews have committed two evils; they have forsaken Me, the spring of living waters, to dig for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that do not hold water (Jeremiah 2:13).  The Kli Yakar explains that the Jews sinned twice by not only forsaking the one, true God, but have taken up with false gods who have nothing to offer.  This is the double whammy of sin and rejection of the national covenant.  We have shattered our marriage to God with double infidelity.  This behavior demands being punished twofold.

            Isaiah himself noted this in the verse right after the repetition of the term for comfort or consolation, for she has taken from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins (Isaiah 40:2).  So, if the Jewish nation was wounded twice, the healing process requires a dual therapy.  What is the nature of this two pronged rehabilitation?  The simplest and, perhaps, most popular approach to this question is that the double punishment was the destruction of both Temples and, therefore, the comfort will only be complete when the second destruction has been rebuilt, please, speedily in our days.  But I don't think this answers the essential issue, which isn't the consecutive nature of the punishment, but the twin character of each punishment.  In that case, we're looking for an answer like we're comforted both spiritually and physically.  Since the punishment seems to have been both physical destruction and spiritual abandonment.

            Reb Zadok of Lublin (1823-1900, Pri Zadik, V'etchanan #11) suggests that one Nechama or consolation is that in punishment we connected to the judgment aspect of God or Elohim.  We usually prefer to deal with the compassionate character of God represented by the ineffable four letter name.  But in the aftermath of destruction and exile comes reconciliation with both aspects of God, God as Judge and God as loving Parent.

            However, I think the neatest answer to my query is that the two consolations can be found in the two names of the Messiah, who represents the ultimate arrival of full comfort and reconciliation with God.  The first and most famous name, Menachem, characterizes the warmth and affection of a loving companion who embraces us after a difficult time.  This feature constitutes the most readily recognized side of the comfort experience.  But there's another viewpoint, perhaps, even greater.  After a long period of dormancy the Jewish people will blossom and thrive again.  This image of the dead stump of Yishai budding, flowering and flourishing is very powerful indeed, and we pray that we are meriting to see the beginning of this growth in our own days.

            The true nature of comfort after catastrophe is the sense of the potential for a brighter future.  It's not a meaningful consolation if we can't envision some silver lining in this ominous cloud.  The suffering won't have been in vain, if we can learn from the experience.  This is why the tradition on Tisha B'av is to recite the kinah Eli Zion last.  In this poem our national agony is compared to a woman in labor pains.  So, our Messiah can't only be about comfort for the past; this idea must represent growth and success in the future.  Then we're doubly comforted.




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