Comfort my people – Shabbat Nachamu

Having now come out the other side of Tisha b’av we are on the count down to Rosh Hashanah, which this year is early (at least feels early in accordance with the Gregorian calendar!). After mourning for the loss of our Temple and focal point of worship and sacrifice Isaiah picks up on the fact that we need to be comforted by G-d, that despite all our sins and transgressions and the punishments meted out to us down the ages, we are never to forget that God loves us, nurtures us and chastises to bring positive change in us, not merely to show Himself as just.

Yet maybe that is not the whole story. I like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; I don’t always agree with his theology but his heart for Jewish study and integrity are clear. In his incisive piece this week in the Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com) on the weekly Shabbat portion he concludes with an incident where a young Yeshiva student repeatedly has his milk stolen or ‘appropriated’ by other Yeshiva students until he labels the milk as halav akum, questionable gentile milk. The milk then remains untouched. Such ‘box ticking’ of apparent righteousness that undermines not just the spirit of Torah and Judaism but actual greater commandments should not (and Rabbi Riskin and I both agree on this one) be seen in Judaism as anything like normative practice. So how do we connect this to ‘Comfort my people’?

If the form of Judaism that creates such behaviour in the Yeshivot has misunderstood the very essence of Judaism and Jewish life (and I would argue that it has), then what other models are available that give us righteousness from HaShem and point to His comfort? I believe that we have missed something critical in our Jewish thinking: G-d understands how difficult it is to ACTUALLY live a righteous life in Him. Although we are to draw down HIS righteousness, we still are obliged to live out that in every day life. G-d understands the struggles and despair, while also rejoicing in the victories too! His comfort seen in this light is not so much aimed at consoling us after being told off and disciplined, but rather a Father sitting us on His lap (I speak with the words of men) showing us compassion in our weakness (in comparison to HIS strength).

Two men from our historical past illustrate this so well: Caleb who according to the Torah ‘had another spirit in him’ and consequently ‘truly followed G-d’, and King David, who despite his gross sin was ‘a man after my own (G-d’s) heart’. Neither man was perfect, both sinned and ‘got it wrong’, yet with the compassion of G-d seeing that each one had a spirit to truly understand what the essence of Torah, righteousness actually is, they pleased G-d and moved Him to understand them. Neither man was a ‘box ticker’. Neither man believed that life could be constrained by human conceptual constructs, even if drawn down from Torah. Both knew that G-d and His Torah righteousness had to be understood, its essence lived and breathed as something alive, as relational and real.

If we as Israel could live out that righteousness before this world, just imagine the impact we would have! Be comforted, our G-d knows us and understands us; He is compassionate.

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Tisha b’av

All around the world, and up and down the Land of Israel this week on Tuesday we marked Tisha b’av, a serious and painful memorial of all the evil events that have befallen us over the millennia. We as Jews have had our fair share (some would say more than our fair share) of persecutions, attacks and dire existential moments. Difficult too to not fall into the trap of the ‘victim mentality’, it’s our lot in life, we are the lightening rod of abuse from a world openly in rebellion against G-d etc etc. The pain has shaped us and patterned our thinking, and yet… dare we even now have the courage to face reality?

In the first century one particular historical event fundamentally changed the course of Jewish history: the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. As this transformational moment is memorialised on Tisha b’av we are encouraged to consider why this happened. The Talmud teaches that the Temple was destroyed due to¬†sinat chinam or ‘unfounded hatred’. There may be some truth to that as amongst the many ‘Judaisms’ of the first century it is known that rivalry and mistrust was huge. Different visions of what Judaism was, is and how to live as a Jew competed with each other in the faith market place for supremacy.

However, the focus on the physical destruction of the Temple hides a reality that we must actually turn our attention to. The Temple, as beautiful as it was, was only stone and superbly crafted and expensively decorated masonry. It was what the Temple stood for that was more important. The Temple was the ‘home’ of the visible and manifest presence of our G-d in our midst. With the Temple gone, that focus went too. We have to therefore ask, what is it that drives G-d’s presence away? The answer according to Torah is sin. King David amongst his own repentances cried out to G-d to ‘not take His Holy Spirit from him’, Rav Shaul talks about ‘not quenching the Spirit’, again in the general context of our sinfulness. Sin drives G-d away. Without His presence the Temple would not survive. The irony of the situation and (by extrapolation to today) its modern counterpart is brought out by Rav Naphtali Yehudah Tzvi Berlin in his commentary on Bereshit. He describes the Jewish community in the first century as a ‘generation of superior Torah knowledge and observance’. Today we too live in a day when Jewish study is deep and widespread, ranging across many different denominations. Yet study didn’t prevent the sin of the first century and consequent destruction of the Temple, and sadly despite our knowledge of Torah today that too cannot and will not save us. What we need now is a renewal and revival of Judaism that will reach out to all Jews, and subsequently the nations too, that will bring our G-d back to His rightful place in our faith and Land. G-d’s presence MUST be returned to the heart of Judaism, to the core of our faith. Once our sin has been dealt with and we are cleaned/washed again as Ezekiel determines WILL happen, then we can expect our nation to light up this world and so bring an end to the attacks that seem to be our constant travelling companion.