Shabbat Nachamu: Providing double the comfort

Shabbat Nachamu: Providing double the comfort

Glen Rock Jewish Center, Conservative

In the face of tragedy and destruction, after Tisha B’Av, just how do we respond with comfort?

After three weeks of hearing admonitions leading up to Tisha B’Av, I’m always ready for the healing power of the chanted words in this week’s haftarah: “Nachamu, nachamu Ami…” — “Comfort, comfort, My people” (Isaiah 40:1). After weeks of being rebuked by our prophets, it’s nice to feel comforted. Don’t you think?

A common question that arises regarding this haftarah is why the word “nachamu” (“comfort”) is repeated.  Some commentators suggest that the first nachamu refers to the first exile, while the second nachamu refers to the second exile. Additionally, many rabbis remind us about all sins committed by the Israelites and claim that they had to be comforted twice because they doubly sinned. Other commentators state that it is written twice merely for emphasis or to illustrate that comfort should be provided quickly.

But I’d like to suggest that the doubling of nachamu refers to something different.

In the verses that follow, we see two themes at play.

First, we see references to speech. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (Isaiah 40:2) and “Raise your voice with power” (Isaiah 40:9). These verses speak to the power of our words. This reminds us how we can use our voices to shame others, to hate others — or we can use our voices to lift them up, to support them, to comfort them. If it is true that the Israelites are comforted in this haftarah after they have sinned, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to constantly be reminded about how I’ve sinned, with each “comfort” referring to something else I’ve done wrong. It’s like beating a dead horse, if you know what I mean.

On the other hand, to hear someone — with their words — give me the benefit of the doubt and comfort me, understand me, and support me despite how I have made poor choices — and to do it twice — now that’s true comfort! Those words comfort me, they give me hope, they remind me of the possibility of redemption even after a period of exile in my life. And so, perhaps, the first nachamu refers to how we can comfort others with our words. Words really do matter.

Second, we see another theme at play — that of action. Isaiah says: “Clear in the desert a road for the Lord! Level in the wilderness a highway for God” (Isaiah 40:3) and “Ascend a lofty mountain, O herald of joy to Zion” (Isaiah 40:9). Through the use of these powerful words, pictures are painted in our minds about just how the Israelites will be soothed with tangible acts of divine comfort. When we think about a road being paved in the desert to clear the way for a better tomorrow, we just feel comforted and hopeful that our journey will not be in vain. When we think about ascending a high mountain with joy, we feel like we are in a better place than we were yesterday. We are comforted through the actions of others. And likewise, we have the ability to support others with acts of comfort.

So just how do we provide comfort to others?

Isaiah reminds us with the doubling of nachamu that there are two ways to comfort others around us — through our words and through our deeds.

I suppose sometimes we are able to comfort people in both ways. Perhaps ideally we are able to bring comfort to others with supportive words and kind actions. So in addition to calling those who need to hear some words of support, we’d find ways of comforting them with our actions: making them chicken soup, accompanying them to a difficult appointment, or even just holding their hand.

Offering comfort in both ways, however, does not negate the importance of each individual nachamu. Perhaps what Isaiah teaches us through the doubling of nachamu is that comfort is not all or nothing. While we might strive to offer comfort in both ways, each type of comfort is important and helps bring healing to those around us.

Nachamu, nachamu, Ami.
Comfort, comfort, My people.
May you bring solace to others through your words and your deeds.
May the voice and acts of others — and God — bring you to a place of peace.

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