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    Comfort after the catastrophe

    Depiction of Isaiah from a 1904 bible card

    Depiction of Isaiah from a 1904 bible card

    The haftarot of rebuke leading up to Tishah B’Av are from Jeremiah. Following them come seven haftarot of comfort from Isaiah.

    The first is the famous passage, Nachamu nachamu ammi – “Comfort, comfort My people” (Isa. 40).

    There is a popular view that this is a call to the people: “My people, be comforted”, but this is difficult grammatically, and it is not the way in which the ancient and modern commentators read the verse.

    The Targum, followed by many other versions, renders the words, “Prophets, give My people prophecies of comfort”.

    The Midrash takes, as usual, a more colourful approach. It believes that the Almighty first calls upon Abraham to comfort the people, but the patriarch is unsuccessful. Then God calls upon Isaac, Jacob and Moses, but they fare no better, so finally it is God Himself who has to come forward and give the people comfort.

    Whatever the exact linguistics of the verse, a crucial question arises – is any comfort really possible after a catastrophe? In this case the catastrophe is the destruction of the Temple. How can a people bereft of its national focus and pride be expected to feel better, even if God tells them they should?

    The same question applies when it is not a nation but a family or individual who is suffering. Does it really help to be told to find comfort?

    The answer depends on what comfort means. If we understand the word in the sense of feeling that everything is normal again, the fact is that everything is not normal, and never will be.

    A loss is a loss; what is lost is not going to return. The rent in one’s heart does not mend. In that sense there can be no comfort, even though well-meaning people say, “Time is a great healer”. All that time does is to make the pain less acute.

    But as for real comfort, two things may possibly help. The first is what bereavement experts call “unlearning the expected presence of the departed”; similar unlearning applies to other losses too.

    The second means of comfort is the ability to give of oneself, finding comfort in helping others. This changes our direction and relationships and enables us to enrich the community as a constructive memorial to that which we have lost.

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