We find God when we bring comfort: a d’var Torah for Shabbat Nachamu

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered this morning at CBI. 

נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם — Nachamu, nachamu ami, yomer eloheichem.

“Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.”

Today is Shabbat Nachamu, named after the first word of today’s haftarah portion, Isaiah 40:1-26. Nachamu is in the plural; it means “y’all offer comfort.” Or, in the locution you might recognize from Handel, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.”

Last weekend brought Tisha b’Av, when we immerse deep in the realities of human suffering and the brokenness of our world. The fall of the first Temple, and our people becoming refugees in Babylon. The fall of the second Temple, which must have been even more heartbreaking than the first. And a dozen other tragedies and traumas throughout our history.

For some of us, Tisha b’Av is a time to remember the suffering of the Jewish people. For others, it offers a more generalized occasion for mourning: the starvation and cruelty and rape described in Lamentations sounds like every war in history, from the Rwandan genocide to what’s happening now in Syria. For still others, Tisha b’Av is a time to mourn the suffering of our planet, which burns and suffers poisons when humanity chooses progress over sustainability.

Today we take a deep breath and let go of all of that sorrow. Today is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat when we are instructed to bring comfort.

There are seven Shabbatot between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah. These are called, in our tradition, the Seven Weeks of Consolation. Having delved into the depths of human trauma and suffering on Tisha b’Av, now we are called to draw on what we learned there in order to propel us in teshuvah, repentance, re/turn, turning-toward-God.

As Rabbi Alan Lew writes, spiritual practice doesn’t remove what hurts in the world. It doesn’t take away our suffering, whether personal or national, chronic illness or the fall of the Twin Towers or death which comes too soon. But spiritual practice can allow us to see what happens more clearly, and to respond to it with compassion and with love.

One of my role models in this is a Unitarian minister named Kate Braestrup. Kate is author of a number of terrific books, including Here If You Need Me, in which she tells the story of how her husband Drew, a Maine State Trooper, was killed in a car accident, leaving Kate widowed with four young children. Here is a quote from that book, which I have returned to many times.

My children asked me, “Why did Dad die?”

I told them, “It was an accident. There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table. And there are large accidents, like the one your Dad was in. No one meant it to happen. It just happened. And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it any more, and so he died.

God does not spill milk. God did not bash the truck into your father’s car. Nowhere in scripture does it say, ‘God is car accident,’ or ‘God is death.’ God is justice and kindess, mercy, and always – always – love. So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love.”

Where do we find God when there is tragedy? For Reverend Braestrup, God is in the loving hands which prepare a casserole and deliver it to your door when something unimaginable has happened; God is in the loving arms which hold you as you weep.

Let me expand on that a little bit.

God is in the friend who offers to hold a newborn so its exhausted mother can take a shower and get some sleep. God is in those who gather for shiva so the mourner can say kaddish in the presence of a minyan. God is in the friend who makes a pasta salad and brings it to the home of a woman whose husband has slipped a disc and can’t get out of bed. God is in the parent who rocks a croupy child in a steamy bathroom in the middle of the night. We find God in our acts of love for one another.

When you listen to someone pour out their worries, you are God’s ears, listening. When you place a hand on someone’s shoulderblade, or offer an embrace, you are God’s hands, soothing. When you make meatloaf for Take and Eat, your hands are God’s hands, providing sustenance. And when you offer comfort, you are God’s presence, comforting.

This is how I understand נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם — Nachamu, nachamu ami, yomer eloheichem. “Y’all comfort — really comfort — My people, says Your God.” It’s our job to comfort one another. And when we do, we bring God’s presence into the world and into our lives.

Crossposted to Velveteen Rabbi.

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