Yesterday was the fast of The Ninth of Av, the bleak commemoration of disaster. Tonight begins Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. I wish there was a little more space between these days, because I’m still struggling with the tell-tale signs of a hangover from the fast, backache and tiredness, and need a little longer to shift my thoughts. According to tradition, the morning after, the first half of the tenth of Av, retains a lingering subdued mood because the fires in Jerusalem still raged – as do the fires today across Europe’s forests.
Yet the immediate proximity of these two dates, not rare in the Jewish calendar, has challenged my understanding of what consolation means. We can find solace in wonder. Can we also find it in anger?
Wonder is the theme of this coming Shabbat. Its readings are filled with beauty. Isaiah’s call to consolation is among the most stirring passages in the entire Hebrew Bible. He begins, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people…Speak to the heart of Jerusalem…’ and ends, ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see who created all these, who brought them forth in all their hosts.’
The story is told of a hasid who said to his rabbi: ‘I’ve read thirty-six interpretations of that verse, but it was only when I looked up and saw, really saw, the magnificence of the stars that I understood.’ ‘You must write your explanation down,’ the rabbi insisted. ‘No,’ the hasid replied; ‘that would merely turn it into explanation thirty-seven.’
The world is full of wonder, in skyscapes, landscapes, music and poetry and in the grace of so many human interactions. We need that beauty to restore our soul and enable us to go on living.
But maybe we also need our anger. ‘I’m so furious,’ a friend said to me at the close of yesterday’s prayers. He was referring to the all too frequently heartless treatment of refugees. ‘Indignant’ might be a better term, but it feels too weak to describe the fire in the bones that refuses to let us be passive in the face of cruelty.
Yesterday I came across astonishing lines by the German-speaking poet of the Holocaust, Gershon ben David. He sees himself standing in silent fields, ‘pregnant’ with ashes of the slaughtered:
And I asked myself: am I
Of my brother Cain
It’s a startling inversion. In Genesis, God challenges Cain to explain the whereabouts of his brother Abel whom he’s just murdered. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Cain notoriously retorts. But in the poem, it’s not the guilty party who’s challenged about his responsibility toward the innocent, but the innocent brother who’s questioned about his responsibility toward the guilty.
Are we, too, all keepers of those potential Cains who inhabit our world? I’m not thinking of murderers, but of those who exhibit the cruelty, or heedlessness, which seems to come so frequently to the fore across our societies these days? What, too, about the small part of Cain which may be present in ourselves, waiting for us to loosen our guard? Are we responsible towards these ‘brother’ Cains? What might that entail? Can we awaken in them a better self, someone, beneath all appearances, potentially merciful? If not, how can we best challenge and overcome them?
I fear we are indeed the keepers of our brothers Cain, external and internal. To fight them we need the energy of anger; we might call this ‘the anger of compassion’. How otherwise can we confront the destructive forces in our world? The art is not just to challenge them but, if and when possible, to turn them about so that they too become part of the work of nurturing life.
We need the solace of wonder to nourish our heart and spirit, and the energy of indignation to give courage to our conscience so that we join the struggle for what is just and right. In so doing, we gain the consolation of contributing whatever we can towards life and hope.