My teacher, Rabbi Daniel Epstein, occasionally quotes the words of Franz Rosenzweig, saying that the weekly parasha is like a personal letter sent to us every week, meeting us in the place where we are at that time.
Five years ago, in the leaflet on Parashat Vaethanen, which was published during the second Lebanese War, I referred to the concept of consolation. Contemplating various appearances of the word in the Bible, it became clear to me that at least two nineteenth century Bible commentators, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in Germany and Rabbi Isaac Samuel Reggio in northern Italy referred to the dual meaning of the word in their commentaries, and also to the apparently contradictory meanings of the root N. H. M.
At that time I mentioned two nearly adjacent uses of the term in Parashat Bereshit:
And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. (Gen. 6:5-7)
In contrast to:
This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the LORD hath cursed. (Gen. 5:29)
The Holy one, as it were, regrets having created Adam and Lemech, Noah’s father, but he is consoled by the birth of Noah, of whom it is said that “he found favor in the eyes of God.”
Nevertheless, in modern Hebrew, we use the root N. H. M. only in the meaning of consolation, and not in that of regret.
When we speak of consoling the mourning, the ordinary formulae are: “May the Place console [yenahem] you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” or “May you be consoled [tenuhamu] from heaven.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Gen. 29:5 points out the dual meaning of the word and the common denominator between the meanings: “This root as an extraordinary meaning: in the active sense it means to console, but it can also mean to repent of a decision regarding the future.
“There is a third meaning, to regret what has been done, as in Jeremiah, “No man repented him of his wickedness” (8:6), and later, “After I returned and repented” (31:18).
“The basic meaning is to change one’s mind, and from this we get regret and a change in a decision. Consolation also changes the feeling of the heart regarding an event that has taken place. Nahem [console] is similar to Noah [the name Noah]. The regretful one changes his mind and turns in a new direction, that is to say, he changes the direction of his motion, and thus we have nahem meaning regret: a person who has experienced a loss will walk and move to fill in the void; someone who has received consolation is someone who is at rest; consolation will put his mind at ease, will fill the void, will silence the murmur of his heart.”
To sum up, even when we refer to the different, Utopian outlook of Rabbi Akiva, when, in contrast to other Tannaim who went with him and wept seeing a fox leave the Holy of Holies in the destroyed Temple, he laughed, in faith that the prophecy of the renewal of the destroyed and abandoned city would be fulfilled (“Old men and women will yet dwell in the streets of Jerusalem.”)
Then we wrote: “Rabbi Akiva’s strange response and his ability to console his fellow Tannaim could be connected to his ability to console himself, that is, to contemplate reality in a different way, to take into account not only static reality, but also the possibility that reality might change. Rabbi Akiva’s ability to see reality in a dynamic way derives from his attitude toward historical reality as a developing and changing text. On this matter one can ask another question: what enables a person to adopt that way of contemplating, and is this possible in every instance, or could there be situations regarding which there is no possibility of being consoled? We remember the Patriarch Jacob’s response when Joseph’s brothers showed him Joseph’s cloak, stained with blood:
And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him. (Gen. 37:34-35)
Rashi interprets Jacob’s refusal to be consoled with a Midrash found in Bereshit Raba: “And he refused to be comforted” - B. R. A person does not accept consolation for someone living and he was certain he was dead, for of the dead it is decreed that they are forgotten from one’s heart, but not the living.”
The Midrash apparently assumes that there is a heavenly decree, meaning a mechanism that doesn’t depend on oneself, by very nature, that permits one to be reconciled with death, and that mechanism does not work when the person one is mourning for is not actually dead.
It is as if finality (conscious or unconscious) helps us to be reconciled with difficult events and circumstances.
The insight that Rashi adopted from the Midrash is interesting and paradoxical, because if we adopt it and try to read it, following Rosenzweig, as a letter addressed to us today, on the personal and also collective level, six years after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and five years after the Second Lebanon War, or even when in these days Israeli society is coping with political problems not only in the regional and international arena, but also with serious crises in the social and ethical area, and it is enough to read the headlines of the newspapers to be aware of it, each of us as an individual or members of a community has the possibility of choosing between two positions:
1. To view the situation as irreversible and to accept it as a decree from heaven, meaning, “we shall eat the sword forever” - the conflict between us and the Palestinians and the Arab world cannot be resolved; social gaps are inevitable, and we have to be reconciled to them; there is no money in the public treasury to assure decent housing at a reasonable, or a public health system, etc. Does such an acceptance offer consolation? Can accepting a worrisome situation be consolation?
2. It was Rabbi Akiva who did not accept the existing situation and did not regard it as an irreversible decree, who was the consoler, who was able to see the dead as living. Indeed, not accepting the situation is what enables him to be consoled and to help the others to see not only the present situation, but also the possibility for change, and this was by virtue of his hope and faith.
Rashi, following Midrash Rabba, interprets the words of Judah, “let us live and not die” (Gen. 43:8), after which Jacob agrees to send Benjamin with his brothers, as being connected to the holy spirit, and here are his words:
And we shall live – the holy spirit flashed within him. By means of this going, your spirit will live, as it is said, “And the spirit of Jacob their father lived.
And on the words, “and the spirit of Jacob their father lived (Gen. 48:37), Rashi wrote: “And the spirit of Jacob lived – the Shekhina came to him, though it had gone away.”
That is to say, the holy spirit had left Jacob when he thought that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal. Rabbi Akiva was graced with the holy spirit when he was able to see through gloomy and discouraging reality.
Since we have no prophets, and we have no information “from behind the screen”, we are in a situation of constant uncertainty, and therefore, in order to be consoled, paradoxically, we must not, following the example of the Patriarch Jacob, relate to the living as dead, which would not enable us to be consoled, but rather we must adopt the approach of Rabbi Akiva, who enables us to relate even to what seems to be dead and hopeless as something living, and in order to do so, we need a different way of looking, a holy spirit. As Maimonides said (Guide of the Perplexed, 2:45), this is the first stage in the ladder of prophecy, that to which any person can attain under certain circumstances:
The first level of prophecy is that which lends a person divine help and motivates him and induces him to do a great and valuable good deed, such as saving a group of excellent people from a group of evil people, or to save a great and excellent person, or to benefit many people. And in his soul he will feel an impulse and drive to act. This is called the spirit of God.
The spirit of God is meant to inspire us with hope and faith for a better future, but it also permits us to act for such a future, and perhaps it also demands that of us.
Pinchas Leiser, the Editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist.