How to comfort and be comforted


Consoling people after they’ve suffered a loss, especially when it’s the death of a loved one, is never easy. No matter what we say, we can never bring back the beloved to this world. How often do we sit by the mourner’s side in awkward silence, feeling completely impotent in our inability to remove the pain.

Tisha B’Av is the day that commemorates not only the destruction of the two ancient Temples in Jerusalem, but also all our people’s national tragedies throughout Jewish history. The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, because we recite the words of the prophet Isaiah (40:1): “Nachamu, nachamu, ami….” (“Be consoled, be consoled, my people….”) There will come a time, the prophet says, that your exile will end, and your future will once again be bright.

The seeming paradox is that on the very same Shabbat we read about the prophet’s consolation in the haftarah, we also read in the Torah portion about Moses’ personal tragedy, which seems to have no consolation. God tells Moses that although he’s faithfully led His people through the desert these past 40 years, and although the Jews are now standing at the very border of the Holy Land, Moses himself will never be allowed entry, and will die and be buried outside of Israel.

How is God’s refusal to Moses consistent with the theme of consolation on this Shabbat of consolation?

Moses was teaching the people a new form of consolation: Know, my brethren, that sometimes the answer will be “no.” Sometimes, God, in his infinite wisdom, must say no to our petitions. We may not understand how this can possibly be good, but I, Moses, assure you that it is ultimately for our benefit.

(Indeed, our sages on this passage go to great lengths to explain why it was in the Jews’ best interests for Moses not to gain entry into the land, which is a discussion that requires a separate essay.)

An additional lesson is contained in Moses’ words: When I asked God to enter the land with you, my brethren, it was because I had just succeeded in my latest mission of defeating those nations just east of the Jordan River. Perhaps, I reasoned, since we are so close to our goal, God will allow me to see it to its final stage and let me enter the land. But alas, even though I was so close, it was not meant to be. Sometimes, it may appear that we are so close to our goals, and then, at the last moment, our hopes are dashed and tragedy strikes.

Devastated though I may be, Moses continued, God did console me with one last wish: He is allowing me to go up to a mountain top where I will at least be able to see all of the Holy Land that you, my disciples, children and brethren, will inherit and enjoy. This, too, is consolation indeed.

In this light, Moses’ tale of tragedy is consistent with the consolation of the prophet. Sometimes, God’s answer must be “no.” But even when it is, God will find a way to give us a glimmer of hope for the future, that life will go on, our people will live on, and there will be a brighter tomorrow.

We have experienced, in our long national history, many misfires of messianic redemption and have heard “no” many times bellowing from heaven. We have witnessed, in our own generation, great hopes for peace in Israel, only to see those hopes dashed to pieces a short time later. But we mustn’t lose sight of the consolation contained therein: God is watching from heaven, and even when the answer is “no,” we are still provided with a vision, with a glimpse of what can yet still be. Imagine when the answer finally will be “yes,” how beautiful that “yes” will be.

There is no such thing as hollow consolation. The answer to one’s prayers might have been “no.” But when the mourner is embraced by his friends and family, when he or she is reassured that no one is ever alone and that life will go on with joy amid the pain, this is truly consolation.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of synagogue and community services for the Orthodox Union’s West Coast region.

Correct priorities


While I was in my synagogue’s office one morning, the phone rang, and I answered. The lady on the other end said, “Hello, may I please speak to the owner?”

I answered, “Certainly, it will be our pleasure to let you talk to him. You have reached The House of God, and the Owner is available at either 6:15 or 7:45 every morning, or during this coming week He can also be reached at 7:45 in the evening.”

“Well in that case I will call back at one of those times,” the lady said.

I responded, “Oh no, you can’t do that because the Owner doesn’t take any telephone calls. You must come in person to see Him if you wish to talk to Him.”

By now the lady was getting a bit frustrated and said, “Excuse me, but why can’t Mr. Gad come to the phone?”

I told her, “Because He only likes a face-to-face conversation.”

It was then she must have realized she hadn’t reached a typical business. “Sir, may I ask what kind of business have I reached?”

“Madam, you have reached a synagogue.”

Her response was most telling. “Oh, in that case I can’t sell you anything. Nothing that I am selling will impress your boss,” she said before hanging up.

This lady’s observation is the theme of a story recounted in this week’s Torah portion.

In Chapter 32, the Torah recounts how the tribes of Reuven and Gad negotiated with Moses to let them settle the Trans-Jordan. Reuven and Gad argued coherently and logically for the land. They noted that this land was originally owned by the defeated Kings of Bashan and the Emorites and was therefore not inhabited by anyone. What were they to do with it? Just let it go unused? It was fertile and well watered, more so than the territory on the other side of the Jordan.

With these facts, they came to Moses and offered what they thought was a reasonable proposition. They had a multitude of cattle, and the Trans-Jordan land was perfect for raising cattle. If they would take possession of it, everyone would benefit. It would enlarge the boundaries of the Jewish state, and it would give more room for the other 10 tribes to divide the land west of the Jordan, creating more prosperity for all involved.

Moses bitterly opposed this idea. He was so incensed with their proposal that he compared their idea to the sin of the scouts who caused the people to be punished with 40 years of wandering in the desert. He was concerned that their proposal would sabotage the entire enterprise of settling the Land of Israel, making the other tribes lose interest in fighting for the land. The argument between Moses and the two tribes only ended when they entered into an agreement that the two tribes would act as the vanguard in capturing the Land of Israel.

But the question remains, what justification did Moses have that allowed him to denounce them so fiercely? How could he compare them to the scouts? Our sages noted that the answer lay in the wording of their proposal. They told Moses, “We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones” (Numbers 32:16). Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, considered this wording and came to the conclusion: “They were concerned for their property more than they were for their sons and daughters, for they put the mention of their livestock ahead of their children.”

What came first in their request? It was the sheepfolds and not the children. It was making money and not building schools and synagogues that took priority. For that reason Moses was upset. He responded by changing the order when he told the two tribes, “Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your flock; and do that which has gone out of your mouth” (Numbers 32:24).

Rashi explains, “Moses said to them: This is not right. Make that which is essential essential and that which is secondary secondary. First build cities for your children and afterward enclosures for your penning.”

Moses challenged them to realize that their values needed adjusting.

It would be wrong for us to just interpret this story as a moment in biblical history without realizing it resonates with modern man just as it did some 3,500 years ago.

How many of us place our work before our families and all other concerns? One modern ethicist captured the entire issue when he said, “No tombstone ever read, ‘He spent extra hours in the office.'”

At the end of the day the Almighty is impressed with us only when we know how to organize our priorities correctly.


Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Letters to Mom


Dear Mother,

Here we are again on the plains of Bethel. We’re in the 10th month of our 10th year in Canaan. Sorry I haven’t written. There were
so many things happening, but none of them so important to justify my negligence. The famine, Pharaoh, Avimelech, the war — they all came and went and I remained the same. I wanted to believe that this move to Canaan would open a new chapter in my life, but boy was I disappointed.

You remember the day of my wedding? Such joy! Such innocence! I thought it would be only a matter of time before I became a mother. But with every year that passed, the dream seemed more remote and unreachable. Everyone was celebrating motherhood and parenthood, the little voices of children filling their homes with joy and happiness. And me? Nothing. I felt alienated and rejected. I felt their furtive glances as I was passing by, as if I was carrying a curse, a terrible disease.

You were the only one who understood, but there was nothing you could do. God alone can count the tears I shed, day after day, year after year, praying, yearning for a child that will redeem me from my solitude, from my agony and my shame. Oh, was I glad to go when the Divine order came to leave Haran. Just go away and leave behind me all the pitying, mercy filled, hypocrite faces. Yes, it was difficult to go and leave you and Dad behind, but I did it not just to fulfill the Divine commandment and follow my husband, but also because I secretly hoped that the move will bring a change, a blessing. But this was not what God wanted.

Abram says that I am a righteous woman and that God enjoys my prayers and supplications. I appreciate that, but enough is enough, we’ve spent 10 years in Canaan and nada. I want to have a child. I want to have a child!

Love,
Sarai

Dear Mother,

Sorry it’s been a couple months since I last wrote you. We’re at the Oaks of Mamre, and I’ve figured out a solution. It’s painful, but I can live with it. I will have Abram marry my maidservant Hagar (remember, the Egyptian girl?). She will be the surrogate mother of my child. Don’t try to dissuade me. I’ve made up my mind, and I know of several respectful families who have gone through this process successfully.

Love,
Sarai

Dear Mother,

It’s over; she’s gone. We don’t know where or when, but she has disappeared from Be’er Sheva. I should be happy, I should be celebrating, but I’m not. I feel terrible. I didn’t mean it to happen like that. All I wanted was to have a child we could call our own, but things got out of hand.

This tricky, treacherous, no-good maid knew very well how to rub it in. “I’m tired,” “I’m nauseated,” “I feel so hungry,” “I crave this” and “Sorry, I can’t bend down to bring you that, Sarai.” All very subtle; not the kind of things a man would notice.

Don’t get me wrong, Ma, I love and respect Abram. But why is his quest of justice reserved only for foreigners? Sodom and Gomorra deserve justice, with all their sins. Meanwhile, I’m abused daily by this Hagar. Do I not deserve justice? These things pass right over his head.

That’s why I blew up. Justice is all I want! He should give me the same treatment he gave Sodom. He stood up to defend those sinners, why not me? And all he said to me was: “Well, what do you want from me? She is your maid. Do whatever you want with her.” And, believe me, I did just that; I didn’t give her a free moment.

But now she’s gone, and I feel miserable. It all swelled up in me — all the anger and frustration, years of sterility, endless nights of crying and, worst of all, the notion that my husband doesn’t understand me. So I took it all on her and I am not so sure I did the right thing.

Love,
Sarai

P.S.: Last night I had a terrible dream, my descendants were persecuted by hers, tortured and expelled, and that voice kept echoing in my mind: “See what you’ve done. See what you’ve done!”

These letters were not unearthed in the hills of Canaan, but they offer a possible interpretation of the events in this week’s parsha.

Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman, however, does suggest that Sarah should not have tortured Hagar, and that the persecution of Jews by Muslims in the 11th and 12th century is a direct consequence of that behavior. The message that no action goes unnoticed or unaccounted for and that communication is essential to a healthy family and society reverberates to this day.

We can only imagine how different things would be if the protagonists in the story would talk with one another, try to define the problems and solve them, instead of being swept away by emotions. How often do we channel anger and frustration at the wrong people? Did you ever interpret someone’s action in a certain way and gave them no chance to explain before attacking?
By telling us the story with all its intricate human relationships and the tragic outcome, the Torah teaches us an important lesson about our daily interaction with the people surrounding us. And this lesson is as applicable in American suburbia as it was at the hilltops of Canaan.


Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.