Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Okay, so last week, I discussed how to chastise.  That job is so difficult because we might do it without thinking through our methods and do more harm than good.  This week I'd like to discuss giving comfort and that's even harder, because we really don't know how to do it.  In rebuke, I must discard the majority of the things my anger wanted me to say; in consoling, I don't know what to say at all.  In the face of tragedy, who knows what to say?  In the book of Job the only significant response the hero felt was silence.  I must be honest whenever I hear people try to explain tragedies, especially the Holocaust, I find myself offended and horrified by their chutzpa.  So, this week we have the famous Haftora of Comfort ye, Comfort ye, and this begins a seven week series of Haftorot of comfort, therefore, let's try to analyze this difficult precept.

Let's begin with the mitzvah of comforting mourners, which most of us sadly perform with some regularity.  According to the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah, 376), when visiting a mourner, one shouldn't speak until the mourner speaks.  We learn this from the story of Job.  After his many tragedies his friends came to visit and no one spoke until Job did.   The comfort that we give is based upon the needs of the mourner, not the desires of the visitor.  People mourn differently and we should do our best to follow their lead.   Of course, this is a technical point, not a philosophic one, nevertheless it is an important guideline.

            So, again we ask, what is the real essence of comfort?  I'd like to present two different points of view.  Interestingly even though the two ideas are very different, they both have the same source.  I got them both from one of my spiritual heroes, Rabbi Dr. Avraham J Twerski.  The first opinion is on an audio recording available on the Yeshiva University web site and is called Mourning and Consolation.  In this address, Rabbi Twerski offers the idea that the nature of the comfort is determined by the nature of the mourning.  We can only address our consolation requirements after we've analyzed the need or loss we expressed during our mourning period.  Let me give two examples, one personal and one national.  If during shiva, the mourner expressed the idea that he/she misses the departed because he/she was the only one that the mourner could really talk to.  So, the comfort will only come when a new confidant is discovered.  On the national level, during Tisha B'av we read many Kinot (elegiac poems, laments) describing the national mourning of the Jewish nation.  We discuss the loss of the Land of Israel, of the holy Temple, and of protection from oppression.  After Tisha B'av one might conclude I have the consolation I need in the modern State of Israel, wile another may conclude I can have no comfort until the Temple is rebuilt.  The nature of the mourning outlines the needs of the comfort.

            In a totally different vein, Rabbi Twerski wrote an article available online called A Tiny Bit of Light Can Banish a Great Deal of Darkness.  In this piece, Rabbi Twerski offers another approach to consolation, based upon his work as a psychiatrist treating patients suffering from substance abuse.  I believe that his insight in that area can be applied to our question about mourning.  His observation is based upon the following story: I attended a meeting of recovering alcoholics. The speaker was a woman of thirty-five. She had started drinking at twelve and drugging at fifteen. In spite of suffering the consequences of living on the street, she was a slave to her drug addiction.  At twenty-six she found her way into Alcoholics Anonymous and, and at the present was nine years clean and sober.  I had heard similar stories countless times, and this one did little for me. But I have never been to a meeting that I didn't take away something of help. What I took away from this meeting has served me well, because toward the end of her talk, the woman said, "I must tell you something else before I finish.  'I am a football fan, a rabid Jets fan. I'll never miss watching a Jets game. One weekend I had to be away, so I asked a friend to record the game on her VCR. When I returned, she handed me the tape and said, 'By the way, the Jets won.'  "I started watching the tape, and it was just horrible! The Jets were being mauled. At half-time they were behind by twenty points. Under other circumstances, I would have been a nervous wreck. I would have been pacing the floor and hitting the refrigerator. But I was perfectly calm, because I knew they were going to win."

            Our consolation should come in the exact same way.  We should have faith that our destiny will turn out well, because it says in this week's Haftorah:  Climb a high mountain, Zion. You're the preacher of good news.  Raise your voice. Make it good and loud, Jerusalem.  Tell the cities of Judah, "Look!  Your God!" Look at Him! God, the Master, comes in power, ready to go into action.  He is going to pay back His enemies and reward those who have loved Him.  Like a shepherd, He will care for His flock, gathering the lambs in His arms, hugging them as He carries them, leading the nursing ewes to good pasture (Isaiah 40:9-11).  We're like the woman who knew the outcome of the game, and, therefore, could sit through the suffering and bear the pain, because we know with perfect faith that Jewish history ends with 'and they lived happily ever after.'

            Reb Baruch of Medziboz, a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, was reciting the prayer before Kiddush Friday night, and as he said, "I gratefully thank You, God, for all the kindness You have done with me, and which You will do with me," he realized that we can thank God and depend upon kindnesses which haven't yet happened, because we believe that they will.  This is our consolation for the tragedies; this is the comfort.  We know for a certainty that there's a happy ending.



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