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Torah Attitude: Shabbos Nachamu/Parashas Va'Eschanan: From the darkness of mourning to the light of morning


This Shabbos is called "Shabbos Nachamu", the Shabbos of comfort. Where is the comfort? The fact that after close to 2000 years in exile, we still mourn the destruction of the Temple shows that we still have a close relationship with what we lost. Even Napoleon Bonaparte understood that if Jews still feel connected and mourn the loss of the Temple, G'd will no doubt help them to build it again. The suffering and affliction the Jewish people experienced during the Holocaust is more severe than anything we have seen throughout the exile. The description of the period before the Messianic era sounds very much like the time we are now experiencing. We have the comfort of knowing that one day life will be totally beautiful. Rabbi Akiva laughed when he saw a fox come out where the Holiest place of the Temple had stood. This Shabbos, and the coming six weeks, we are comforted by our own mourning.

Shabbos Nachamu

Last Sunday we observed the fast of Tisha B'Av. We mourned the destruction of both the first and second Temple, as well as the many other calamities that took place on this day. A week later we enter a special Shabbos called "Shabbos Nachamu", the Shabbos of comfort. This seems odd. How do we switch from one week to the next, from mourning to comfort, and where is the comfort that we refer to? Has anything suddenly changed since the mourning of the three weeks and Tisha B'Av? The Temple has not been rebuilt. Everything around us clearly shows that we are far from perfect and we still suffer from our exile. All over the world, people are worried about the agreement between the United States and Iran, and in Israel we do not see any real progress in the relationship with the Palestinians. From a spiritual point of view the situation is rather bleak as well. As we mentioned last week, we are losing thousands of our brothers and sisters to missionary activities and general assimilation. From year to year the assimilation numbers are getting higher. So where is the comfort?

The comfort in mourning

The truth is that the comfort is in the mourning itself. When, G'd forbid, a Jew loses a close relative, a parent, sibling, or child, one observes a period of mourning starting with the Shiva. The mourning period gives the mourner the opportunity to express the loss of someone very dear. It enables one to express one's innermost feelings. Throughout the year of mourning, one says Kaddish, learns Mishnayoth and gives charity for the elevation of the soul of the deceased. This conduct is continued every year when one observes the Yahrzeit on the anniversary of the deceased's death. With this we show our belief that the soul of the deceased still exists and that our actions make a difference for the deceased. This conduct is reserved only for the immediate family. It would not be appropriate to observe this kind of intimate mourning for someone who is not a close relative. The fact that after close to 2000 years in exile, we still mourn the destruction of the Temple and the loss of all the goodness that comes with it, shows that we still have a close relationship with the Temple. This is a tremendous comfort.

Napoleon Bonaparte

An interesting anecdote is told about the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon, with his vision of emancipation, saw himself as the redeemer of mankind, in general, and of the Jewish people, in particular. In his ambition to rule the entire world, he eventually conquered the Land of Israel. One summer day, the emperor was going for a walk in the streets of Jerusalem and heard some painful wailing. He enquired what had happened to cause such distress. He could hardly believe his ears when he was told that the Jews had gathered in their synagogues to mourn the destruction of the Temple. In utter amazement, he exclaimed, "A nation that can still mourn the loss of the Temple after so many years for sure merit to be redeemed and rebuild their Temple." Even this gentile ruler understood that if the Jewish people can still feel connected and mourn the loss of the Temple, G'd will no doubt help them to build it again.

The end of the exile

It is clear that we live in the time that marks the end of our exile. Our sages compare the end of the exile to the darkness before dawn, and refer to it as "Chevlei Mashiach", the so called "birth pangs of Mashiach". Like the night is darkest just before dawn, and the birth pangs of the expectant mother are strongest just before birth, so is the suffering of the Jewish people the most severe in the final stage of our exile. No doubt, the atrocities we suffered during the Holocaust are the strongest that we have experienced throughout our exile. This is another reason for comfort. The extreme pain and darkness that we have been through are the biggest proof that dawn is eminent. The best of all times is on the horizon, waiting to fill our lives with the beautiful light of the Messianic era.

The coming of Mashiach

The Talmud (Sotah 49b) describes the period before the coming of Mashiach. It sounds very much like our times. The Talmud says that there will be a lot of "chutzpah". People will do things in public with no shame or fear of the consequences of their immorality. Prices will soar, although there is be plenty. Governments will be corrupt, and there will be no one to give reproof. Immorality will be rampant. The wisdom of the Torah sages will not be appreciated. People who fear G'd will be despised. There will be a lack of truthfulness. The Talmud concludes that the young will have no respect for their elders. This is a very accurate description of our time. But again, as the darkness gets stronger, we sense that the light of the Mashiach is imminent.

The comfort of knowing

Since the destruction of our Temple, the Jewish people have gone through many periods of immense suffering and our spiritual level has deteriorated gradually until this day. However, the fact that the sages of the Talmud, thousands of years ago, gave such an accurate description of our times, gives us additional comfort and strength to endure the darkness before the dawn. The same sages foretold the beauty of the era after Mashiach arrives, as described by the great prophets. This adds a dimension of excitement to our comfort, as we know that one day life will be totally beautiful. Once the Temple will be rebuilt, we will be blessed and enjoy the glory and closeness of G'd as never before.

Rabbi Akiva laughed

The Talmud (Makkos 24b) relates that Rabbi Akiva was walking together with his colleagues, Rabbis Gamliel, Elazar Ben Azaria, and Yehoshua. On the way to Jerusalem, they passed Mt. Scopus. When the ruins of the Temple came into view, they tore their garments, like mourners who had lost a close relative. As they came closer to the Temple mount, they saw a fox coming out where the Holiest place of the Temple had stood. Rabbi Akiva's colleagues started to cry. But Rabbi Akiva laughed. The other rabbis asked, "Why are you laughing?" He asked back, "why are you crying?" They said, "This was the most holy place where only the High Priest could enter on Yom Kippur; otherwise anyone else who entered would be eligible for capital punishment. Now foxes run in and out from there. Should we not cry?" Said Rabbi Akiva, "for this very reason, I am laughing." One prophet said, "because of you, Zion will be plowed like a field" (Micah 3:12). Another prophet said, "there will come a time when old men and women, boys and girls, will once again sit together in the streets of Jerusalem" (Zacharia 8:4-5). Said Rabbi Akiva, "Just as the words of the prophet who warned about the destruction of the Temple have been fulfilled, so for sure will the words of the other prophet, who spoke about the rebuilding of the Temple, be fulfilled." To this the rabbis exclaimed, "You have comforted us Akiva, you have comforted us."

The comfort of mourning

For three weeks we mourned the destruction of the Temple. This Shabbos, and for the following six weeks, we are comforted by the fact that although the Temple was destroyed almost two thousand years ago, we still feel connected and yearn to rebuild it. The severity of the suffering we endured during the Holocaust strongly indicates that the Messianic era is eminent. And as we remember the words of Rabbi Akiva, we feel confident that just as all the prophecies of the various punishments both in the Torah and the Prophets, clearly have been fulfilled, so too will the day come when the words of the prophets of the beauty and glory of Mashiach will be fulfilled in full measure. May it happen soon in our days.

These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel