How We Reconcile Grief and Comfort
The Hebrew month of Av, as the Rabbis have acknowledged and history has reinforced, is the month of calamity—the month of sorrow. There is quite a list of catastrophes that transpired on the day we observe in fasting and mourning this week: from the report of the spies under Moses to the destruction of both the First and Second Temples; from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, under the edict of Franz Ferdinand, to the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942. Each shares this day on the calendar, and as we approach the ninth of Av, we prepare ourselves for some destruction—be it spiritual or historic—that resonates with each of us.
Yet at the same time, with all the grief and tears, with all the mourning and affliction, the month of Av is identified not solely by its formal title, but with the descriptor menahem (consolation). So despite these calamities, we anticipate solace. Despite the destruction, we seek comfort. From the moment we begin to consider destruction, our calendar creates a tension between mourning and consolation, yet leaves it to us to discern how or when that consolation comes.
For one answer, I recall a teaching that Rabbi Gordon Tucker shared of the Sefat Emet, a Polish Hasidic rebbe, on the evening of Tish’ah Be’Av last year. The Sefat Emet read the month of Av not as a proper name, but rather as an abbreviation for the aleph bet (the two letters that spell the Hebrew month of Av). Read this way, the Sefat Emet understood the consolation of Menahem A”v as referring to the comfort we receive from the order of the Hebrew alphabet as it appears in the first four chapters of the book of Lamentations that we read on Tish’ah Be’Av. The first letter of each verse of these chapters begins with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; and the third chapter deploys each letter three times in subsequent order. For the Sefat Emet, our consolation comes by responding to tragedy with order. In the face of chaos, order leads to comfort.
It is an inspiring message. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, Lamentations responds with an alphabetic acrostic through the first four books, and through order we will find consolation. (Interesting to note: Dr. Alan Cooper, JTS provost, citing both Robert Gordis and Ed Greenstein in the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Society in 2001, wrote that although the last chapter of Lamentations is not an alphabetic acrostic like the preceding chapters, it contains the same number of verses as the preceding chapters and is a variant on the alphabetic acrostic. Thus, we can consider the order consistent throughout the book.) Yet, life does not always respond as neatly as ritual directs. Order in the face of chaos, no matter how wise, leaves residual sorrow, and frequently the pain continues to overwhelm the prospect of consolation.
Our question remains: How immediate should our grief be—and how long should it last?
This question of how is the fundamental question of the beginning of this month of Menahem Av. The book of Lamentations begins with the question of how—and its Hebrew name, Eikha, is the poetic version of the Hebrew word that connotes more angst and mourning than its colloquial eikh (how). In the opening words of Lamentations we question, “How has this city become the harlot?” The question grapples with which failures led to the downfall.
The same poetic Eikha surfaces this week in Parashat D’varim. At the beginning of his speech to the children of Israel, on the precipice of the Promised Land, Moses recounts much of the story of the Exodus, but in a tone that is peppered with melancholy and rebuke:
Thereupon I said to you, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. The Lord your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky—May the Lord, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as He promised you—How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering! (Deut. 1:9-12)
We can hear Moses’s own pain through this speech and understand his disappointment. His questioning of “how” is rooted not only in the enormity of the task, but in a judgment of his own abilities and self worth.
To possibly shed some light on the tension, the Shabbat we observe during this week preceding Tish’ah Be’Av is Shabbat Hazon—the Shabbat of Vision—named after the words of Isaiah’s prophecy, which we read as the haftarah. Normally we think of vision as positive, but this week it has very negative connotations.
The haftarah is Isaiah’s vision of the impending destruction and exile; however, carefully reviewing his prophecy sheds some insight on our question. Isaiah has a vision for a city that will, once again, be known as a city of justice, and his prophecy is one that focuses on introspection and analysis. Boiled down to their essence, his words not only highlight the people’s failure in their commitment to God, faith, and justice, but give a prescription for consolation. Isaiah’s prophecy is about what Israel has been doing wrong, but can be doing justly. His vision is not about mourning the past, but considering the reality that led us to the moment and looking forward to the future.
This is how we reconcile grief and comfort, calamity and solace. By carefully considering the past that led us to the moment, we can begin to look beyond the destruction to the time of rebuilding when we can yet again reside in a city of justice. It is a lesson for both nation and individual. The consolation Menahem Av offers is that we can learn about the mistakes of the past that led to the destruction of the present, and seek the comfort of a world that is built on the vision for the future.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.