I am always glad when Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation, arrives. The bleak fast of the Ninth of Av has passed and we move from contemplating destruction to hope and comfort.
Comfort, O comfort my people; speak to the heart of Jerusalem Isaiah 40:1
But where does comfort come from? Experience as a community rabbi has made me wary of trite comments like ‘time is a healer’. Time pushes us by the shoulder into the bewildering future. But it rarely fills in the holes in the heart through which, mercifully, painfully, those we have lost make unpredictable reappearances in our consciousness. No one lives only in the present.
In the wider frame of history, what is destroyed is rarely speedily rebuilt. The impact of persecutions, wars, disasters, marks those affected forever, and often defines the lives of their children, even their children’s children. Violence hasn’t vanished from the world, or racism, anti-Semitism and hatred gone away.
So where is comfort?
I saw a sign stuck on a lamppost ‘Ich liebe mein Leben’, ‘I love my life,’ with a small red heart underneath. Thank God, the love of life has tenacious powers. Like the pale leaves emerging in April from the thick, sticky buds of a chestnut tree after a winter of dormancy, the will to live reawakens in the human heart.
Like the wild flowers that grew in the bomb craters of London after the war, life has extraordinary resilience. It finds a foothold once again, not the same as it once was, but life nonetheless.
Destruction is powerful. But creation and creativity have – so far – found the subtle, visceral, tenacious resources to fight back:
However many rings of pain the night welds around me,
The opposing pull is stronger, the passion to break away. Boris Pasternak
Yet, as life rushes on, what about the wounds left behind?
The issue takes me to the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and his desire to question the Messiah. But where should he find him? ‘Among the poor at the gates of the great city’, Elijah informs him, referring to Rome, recently responsible for the sacking of Jerusalem. The rabbi promptly travels to the great metropolis, where he sees a host of destitute people taking off their bandages and gazing at their injuries. The Messiah, however, removes only one bandage at a time before hastily replacing it, saying ‘Maybe I am needed’.
I’ve met a lot of people like that. Sometimes they come up to me and say, ‘Remember me when you hear about someone else going through what I’ve been through’. It may be grief, depression, illness, the sudden loss of their job. They have turned their wounds into ‘Maybe I am needed’.
Nervous before the start of the Royal Parks half marathon last year, I asked the runners waiting next to me why they were doing the race:
‘For the Alzheimer’s Society, in memory of my mum’
‘For Cancer Research, because of what happened to my brother’
They too have turned their sorrow into ‘Maybe I am needed’.
Such people are my heroes, healers, redeemers, the rebuilders of Jerusalem.
Much as I sometimes wish to, I don’t think I believe in a single personal magical Messiah who’ll descend from heaven on a long rope into the maelstrom of history and solve all its ills.
But I believe in the redemptive spirit in humanity, within each of us, and in our capacity, with each other’s help, to try to turn pain into healing, destruction into rebuilding, grief into consolation, mourning into hope.