Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Seven Weeks of Condolence
To dedicate this lesson

Small Comforts


Rabbi Berel Wein

As anyone who has passed through life knows there are great tragedies and small comforts that make up our life story. The tragedies are deemed great because they are deemed to be of an irreversible nature. Our beloved kin who have passed away are not coming back to us in this current world that we live in. For all nations, ultimate defeat usually means the end of empire if not the end of the nation itself. Therefore any measure of later comfort is considered small relative to the agonizing loss sustained. Because of this the prophet Isaiah comforts us doubly by repeating the word nachamu - be comforted - twice in the haftorah that we read on the Sabbath following Tisha B’Av - Shabat Nachamu - the Sabbath of comfort. The prophet wishes to emphasize to us that in reality there are no small comforts in life. Every instance of comfort and consolation, no matter how insignificant it may initially appear to be, is to be treasured and appreciated. The great moments of complete satisfaction in our lives are rare and very far between. Most of the time in our lives we are sustained by the small comforts of our every day lives - family, friends, hopes and aspirations, faith and Jewish society. In our drive to experience full consolation - something almost impossible to achieve - we neglect to accept the small comforts of life graciously and with gratitude. Therefore the prophet repeats and emphasizes the word nachamu - almost a command to be comforted - since the nature of humans is to consider what they deem as small comforts lightly.

The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed 1939 years ago. It has not been rebuilt for millennia, neither by Jewish efforts nor by heavenly intervention. An independent Jewish state has nonetheless arisen in the Land of Israel. The state is imperfect, socially, economically, politically and spiritually. Many times I have heard people in Israel say, only half-jokingly - while waiting in line at one of our many government offices " For this we waited two thousand years?!" The great and grandiose dreams that many associated with the advent of the Messianic Era have not as yet materialized. We are still far from peace and security, from social equality and from a spiritually oriented society. We are riven with internal divisions, unreasoning hatreds and grumbling complaints. We have reached the Promised Land but many feel that its promise has been denied us. So therefore the not so small comfort of being able to live in the Land of Israel in an independent Jewish state ends up not being appreciated and for many Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, not even recognized. It is as though Jewish redemption and rebuilding is an all or nothing matter. And if we don’t as yet have then many somehow feel that we have nothing. And we buttress this wrong attitude with piety or distorted ideas of humanism accompanied by infantile sloganeering. We behave like a spoiled child rejecting or demeaning a gift given to it because it feels that the gift is somehow inadequate. That is not only bad attitude; it is bad manners as well.

The rabbis of halacha and of the Talmud were master psychologists of the human spirit. They made provision for releasing grief and restoring emotional equilibrium in measured stages - seven days, thirty days, a year, annual memorial days. Each of these stages brings only a small measure of comfort in gradual measure as compared to the terrible shocking blow of tragedy itself. There is only one Shabat Chazon - the dark Shabat of sadness that precedes Tisha B’Av. Its impact is sudden, enormous and devastating. However there are seven Shabatot of comfort that follow Tisha B’Av. Comfort apparently comes in small and of necessity repetitious doses. Each small comfort is to be appreciated and savored on its own terms. None of the comforts are complete in themselves. They are small in comparison to the great national tragedy that befell us. Yet cumulatively they allow us to be comforted and begin again our personal and national missions. The rabbis questioned Rabi Yochanan ben Zakai why he did not ask the Roman general (soon to be emperor) Vespasian for the right to rebuild the Temple. He replied that he only wished for now an hatzalah purta - a small salvation and comfort. The small salvation and comfort was the yeshiva at Yavne and its scholars. This small salvation fueled Jewish survival throughout the long dark night of the exile. We should appreciate and be grateful for our current hatzalah purta - our wondrous small comfort.
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