COMFORT x 2
Rabbi David Walk
The prayer Nachem which we inserted into our Shmoneh Esreh prayer on Tisha B'av came under intense fire during the twentieth century. The prayer states that the once beautiful city of Jerusalem stands 'in sorrow, laid waste, scorned and desolate.' However, since the late nineteenth century a large number of gorgeous buildings have been built all around the city. Until about 1950 most of the outstanding architecture was constructed by gentiles. So, already in 1938 Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein (d. 1942) questioned the appropriateness of the text of this prayer at a time when Jerusalem could boast of beautiful buildings and a large Jewish population. His response to his own query was that we must wait for Jewish sovereignty over our eternal capital. Well, that answer worked for less than a decade. Again in the nineteen-fifties people asked about the continued relevance of the prayer and the then Chief Rabbi Rav Isser Yehuda Unterman (1886-1976) defended the continued use of Nachem. But the issue really heated up during the euphoria sparked by the Six Day War. At that point numerous alternative versions were put forward. For the English speaking world the most famous was suggested by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld in his translation of the Kinot. In this new format he removed all mention of the bleak status of Jerusalem and added prayers for the return of those Jews still remaining in the Diaspora. Rav Goren, famous for blowing Shofar at the newly liberated Kotel, wrote his own new version. Rav Chaim Dovid Halevi, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, claimed that continued recitation of the old version which claimed that Jerusalem stood in ruins was tantamount to lying. His modest emendation: change the text to the past tense.
However, by about 1980 the commotion died down. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik came out strongly for the original text. Rav Ovadia Yosef lambasted the mavericks by asking how they dared tinker with a prayer written by the Men of the Great Assembly (c. 450-200 BCE). It's not entirely clear that the prayer is that old, but his point is well taken that we do venerate ancient texts, and rarely fiddle with them. But why did this movement which attracted so many reputable scholars (including Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Prof. A. A. Urbach) lose its momentum? I think that the answer begins with certain societal realities and then became a philosophic realization. The intense elation which followed the miraculous victory in 1967 petered out in the seventies, when the Egyptians attacked in 1973, the Arab world still wouldn't make peace with us and the reaction from Diaspora Jewry was, well, underwhelming. The reality check revealed that if the Medina was the first budding of the redemption, it was going to be a very long growing season. And what about the second more conceptual rejoinder? That will require a couple of paragraphs to develop.
As most of you know this week's haftorah begins with the Hebrew language's most famous redundancy, nachamu, nachamu ami, Be consoled, be consoled, My nation (Isaiah 40:1). The Midrash offers a well known explanation: The doubling of the consolation in the verse relates to the double transgressions that precipitated the destruction for which we need consoling. Chet chatah Yerushalayim, Jeremiah lamented. This doubled expression of chet (sin) called for the doubled destruction spoken of by Isaiah: "for she has received double (kiflayim) for all her sins." This in turn demanded a doubled consolation (Eicha Raba, 1:57). What was the double sin? Although there are many answers, let me offer one from the Ba'al Shem Tov. The breaking of God's command is always a sin. However, when the sinner is also one who dwells in God's house every transgression becomes a double affront. And that's who we are. Whether a Jew lives in the shadow of the Holy Temple or at the far reaches of some ancient empire, we are all members of God's household. We all descend from Avraham; we all stood at Mt. Sinai; we all gloried in Jerusalem's magnificence. So, our punishment is double. We are banished from Jerusalem and the land, and we have become distant from God as well.
According to Isaiah, because of this double dose of disaster our people require two stages of comfort. I don't claim that that even a precise, analytical reading of these verses will a yield an expectation for how the consolation will arrive, develop and, finally, relieve us of our millennia of suffering. However, just as the punishments have been layered to reflect both the physical aspects of our sins and the emotional/psychological/spiritual nature of the distance we have moved from our Divine Parent. So, too, the phases of our consolation and return will reflect, initially, a physical reconciliation and only at a later period the complete rapprochement.
That's what happened in the twentieth century. Our long suffering nation saw rays of hope on the horizon and jumped to the reasonable conclusion that this was it. We assumed that the pleasingly plump (zaftig) woman was starting to sing. We thought that the urban renewal of Jerusalem was the sign. We considered that the birth of the sovereign State was the harbinger. We believed that the reunification of Jerusalem was the herald. But we hadn't moved beyond stage one consolation. It took a while but we figured out that the comfort which we pray for in the paragraph of Nachem, is stage two consolation, which has not yet been granted us.
I don't know what the missing element will look like or when it will arrive. I'd like to think that it will include phenomena like kindness, brotherhood, and peace. There are only two things that I believe are true. One is that we must be patient on the one hand and pro-active on the other. The second is that when the final comfort comes we'll recognize it, because as the prayer itself quotes Zachariah (2:9), when it happens God will be the glory within Jerusalem.