Console, oh console My people
There are a number of Sabbaths on the Jewish calendar that are named for their haftorah readings. The Sabbath between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva; the Sabbath before Passover is called Shabbat HaGadol, and the Sabbath before the 9th of Av is called Shabbat Hazon.
The Sabbath following the 9th of Av, when we read the parasha Va’Et’hanan, is also named for its haftorah (Isaiah 40): Shabbat Nahamu.
In this devar Torah, I would like to investigate the Hebrew root NHM, which appears frequently in Scripture and which, apparently, takes on different meanings.
Already in parashat Bereishit, following the story of the creation of the world and of humanity, after the expulsion from Eden, Cain’s murder of Abel, and the recounting of the entire book of the generations of Adam in chapters 5-6, we read:
The Lord saw how great was man's wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted [vayinahem] that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, "I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created - men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky for I regret [nihamti] that I made them (Bereishit 6:5-7).
However, just a few verses earlier we read in connection with Noah’s birth:
And he named him Noah, saying, "This one will provide us comfort [yenahamenu] from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the soil which the Lord placed under a curse." (Bereishit 5:29)
The Holy One blessed be He mitnahem [regrets] having created man and Lemekh; Noah’s father is mitnahem [comforted] by the birth of Noah, who was said to have found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
In contemporary Hebrew, we only use the root NHM in the sense of consolation, but not in the sense of regret.
When we engage in nihum aveilim [comforting mourners], the formulaic expressions we use are “May the Omnipresent yinahem [console] you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem” and “Tenahamu [may you be consoled] by Heaven.”
Starting with Nahamu, the haftarot following the 9th of Av, are called the Sheva de’Nehamuta [“The Seven of Consolation”]. At first glance, it seems that in every one of these haftarot the root NHM appears in relation to consolation following disaster as a way of dealing with distress. It is, then, interesting to see if the commentators tried to explain the various meanings of NHM by way of a common denominator and a new understanding.
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (on Bereishit 5:29) enlightens us with his discussion of the various senses of the root NHM, and their common basis:
This root has a peculiar meaning. In the pi’el: to comfort, in nifal: to be comforted;
but also: to alter your mind or your decision regarding some intended action; finally, also: contrition, remorse at something which has occurred as in No man regrets his wickedness (Jeremiah 8:6) and Now that I have turned back, I am filled with remorse (31:18).
The basic underlying meaning is: to change one’s mind, hence repentance and altering one’s decision. Consolation is also a complete reversal of the previous feeling regarding an occurrence…NHM [similar to Noah], is a movement which is reversed, like nah. Hence haniham, also where it means repentance, seems to be connected with the complete giving up of a direction hitherto held. But that is also consolation. A painful loss sets us in motion internally; consolation brings us to rest, closes the gap, and stays the motion. (Levi translation)
Rabbi Yitzhak Shemuel Reggio, who was almost a member of Rabbi Hirsch’s generation, living just a little earlier than him in northeast Italy, writes in his Torah commentary (on Bereishit 6:6):
And the Lord regretted [vayinahem] – all expressions using the word nehamah refer to a change of will from one plan to an opposing plan, sometimes from bad to good, sometimes the opposite. It is known that God’s will is unchangeable, but the matter is like this: All of the blessed Lord’s decrees and promises are made on the condition that those who benefit from them remain deserving of them and do not change. When the decree is categorical and unconditional, an oath, or a sign accompanies it, or it is formulated as advice. In the creation story God decreed that the laws of creation would remain in effect forever, and that is why it is said of them that they are good. Similarly, He decreed that the human race would be fruitful and multiply and conquer the earth, but all of that was conditional upon humans observing the commandments of reason, avoiding oppression and illicit sex. God knew from the start that they would corrupt their ways and deserve annihilation – accordingly, He did not swear to those decrees at the time of the creation, but only swore to them to Noah following the flood. From this we can understand that the calamities of the flood did not constitute a change in the Divine will, but rather a change in those affected by it. Because of their evil ways they no longer merited the benefits promised to them by God at the beginning of creation. However, since God did not reveal this secret to humanity when He blessed it saying be fruitful and multiply, we thought that it was as if God had regretted what He had said…”
In addition to explaining the concept NHM as referring to a change of will in either direction, Reggio tries to grapple with the theological problem that arises from biblical passages whose plain meaning seem to refer to changes in God’s will regarding the creation of humanity. He does this by attributing the change to human beings. The change associated with God actually occurs in the consciousness of humans and derives from their unacceptable behavior.
The common element in these two 19th century commentaries is that the root NHM can be interpreted in a wide fashion. All of the cases concern change; sometimes it is a change of will – a change of a decision already taken or about to be taken. Sometimes it is a change of mindset and of emotion following an event.
In other words, nehama can be defined as a new vision of reality that requires that a decision already taken be changed, or which creates a different relationship of consciousness or of emotion that lends new significance to an event beyond our control.
This new definition allows us to contemplate Isaiah’s prophecies of nehama from a developmental perspective. Only in the seventh week, in the haftorah for parashat Nitzavim (or Nitzavim - VaYelekh), on the Sabbath before Rosh HaShana do we read in chapter 61: I greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being exults in my God, for He has clothed me with garments of triumph, wrapped me in a robe of victory. There were earlier attempts at consolation, but the people’s response to the effort to console them in Nahamu (the haftorah of Va’Et’hanan, Isaiah 40) was: The Zion said: the Lord has left me, my Master has forgotten me (the haftorah for Ekev, Isaiah 42). The haftorah for Ekev ends with Isaiah 51:3:
Truly the Lord has comforted Zion, comforted all her ruins. He has made her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the Garden of the Lord. Gladness and joy shall abide there, thanksgiving and the sound of music.
However, the response of the haftorah for Re’eh (Isaiah 54:11) is:
Unhappy, storm-tossed one, uncomforted! I will lay carbuncles as your building stones and make your foundations of sapphires.
And so the process of consolation continues until the seventh week, when the people finally agree to be comforted.
In the end of the tractate Makot (24b) we are told of how Rabban Gamliel, R. Eliezer ben Azariah and R. Akiva were walking along, and when they ascended to Jerusalem and reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerge from the area of the Holy of Holies:
They began to cry, while Rabbi Akiva laughed.
They said to him, “Why are you laughing?”
He responded, “Why are you crying?”
They said to him: “If from the place about which it is written, And the stranger who enters there, shall die, now foxes prowl over it, should we not cry?”
He said to him: “For that very reason, I am laughing. As it is written, I will bring two reliable witnesses regarding my People, Uriah the Priest and Zachariah son of Yevarech'yahu (Isaiah 8:2). What does Uriah have to do with Zachariah? Uriah lived in the time of the First Temple, and Zachariah in the time of the Second Temple! But Scripture makes Zachariah's prophecy dependent on Uriah's. By Uriah it is written, Therefore, because of you, Zion will be plowed under like a field. (Micah 3:12). In Zachariah it is written, Yet again, elderly men and elderly women will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, (Zachariah 8:4). Until I saw the fulfillment of Uriah's prophecy, I had some doubt as to whether Zachariah's prophecy would come true. Now that I have seen Uriah's prophecy fulfilled, I know that Zachariah's prophecy will also be fulfilled.”
They spoke to him in these words, “Akiva, you have comforted us. Akiva, you have comforted us.”
Rabbi Akiva different reaction and his ability to console [nahem] his fellow Tanaim is connected to his ability to hitnahem [change his attitude], to look at reality in a different way, to take into account not only static reality, but also the possibility of that reality changing. R. Akiva’s ability to view reality as dynamic springs from his attitude towards historical reality as an open and changing text.
It seems that we sometimes need time in order to be consoled and see reality differently. The transition from a crisis to a situation in which we may recover from the crisis is a slow process because reality does not change and we are not automatically blessed with the ability to accommodate to a disappointing reality and to find consolation in it.
Sometimes, someone who is blessed with consoling/changing qualities can influence his environment and help it look at apparently harsh reality in a different way.
These words are written in difficult days in which the north of our land has burst into flames. Many people have been hurt and forced to leave their homes; soldiers have been killed and injured, and the welfare of the abducted soldiers is a cause for great concern. Similarly, people from among our Lebanese neighbors have been hurt, including children who have no part in our war against the cruel enemy. Therefore, we hope and pray that by the time these words are published there will be a new reality in our country and in our region.
These hard events require healing and consolation. I am troubled that some of the rabbinic voices heard in the media are not shocked by the killing of innocent children.
We need to undergo a process of nehama, and we need a spiritual leadership that can – like Rabbi Akiva – see the situation “differently,” that can change and console and sew hope, love and consolation in hatred’s place.