The Mechanics of Consolation
- Rabbi Norman Lamm
- Aug 14, 1970
In their commentaries on today’s special Haftorah, the Rabbis (in their Yalkut) tell us of the following imaginary yet very real conversation:
ר' חנינא בר פפא אמר, אמרו ישראל לישעיהו: ישעיהו
רבינו תאמר שלא באת לנחם אלא לאותו הדור
שחרב בהמ"ק בימיו? אמר להם, לכל הדורות באתי
לנחם. "אמר אלוקיכם" אין כתיב כאן אלא "יאמר אלוקיכם."
Israel said to Isaiah: Isaiah, our Teacher, would you
say that your consolations were directed only to that
generation in whose days the Temple was destroyed?
Said Isaiah to them: No, I have come to console all
the generations. For it is not written, "comfort ye,
comfort ye, my people, said your God,” but it says
“comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, sayeth (or: will
say) your God.”
Consolation, then, is not an act in isolation. It is a process, and it applies not only to one specific time, but it is relevant to all times. It is therefore worth pondering: what does this subtle yet powerful psychological transformation consist of? What are the mechanics of this profound personal redemption which we call nechama?
I ask this not only as an abstract or rhetorical question. There are practical consequences. People are caught up in the depths of despair and grief. What should or can consolation mean to them? Or, the menachamim, those who go to console the mourners: very often they are at a loss, they do not know how to translate their good wishes into acceptable words. That is why they often do the wrong thing, why the task of offering condolences is often so difficult, why otherwise intelligent people are frequently reduced to silly prattle.
Furthermore, in the history of our people we are the great Generation of Nechamah. We are the generation that has gone from the depths of Auschwitz to the heights of the State of Israel. We have experienced consolation. Therefore, it behooves us to understand it, so that we can better understand ourselves and the times in which we live.
The answer to our question, the key to the nature of this phenomenon called consolation, may be found in our Haftorah, that beginning with the immortal words, Nachamu, nachamu ami. Let us adumbrate several items that emerge from a deeper study of this Haftorah.
First, in order to console properly, you must never understate or underestimate the extent of the pain and the grief. To be the proper menachem, you must acknowledge the depths and singularity of suffering. At bottom, all suffering is highly individual.
When Isaiah and the Prophets are told to console Jerusalem, they are told: דברו על לב ירושלים, speak to the heart of Jerusalem, כי לקחה מיד ה’ כפלים בכל חטאתיה--for Jerusalem has received punishment from God, double the amount her sins warranted.
Often we try to show the mourner that others have suffered more or at least equally. In one sense, this is helpful, for it lets the mourner feel that he is not completely alone, that he is part of the community of the miserable. But never, never must this be overdone. For to try to show the sufferer that his suffering is not really that bad denies him the uniqueness of his loss. And ultimately it is futile too, because it makes a mockery of the particular misfortune that only he knows so intimately and that no other can fully share.
Hence the first rule of consolation is to show that you identify with the sufferer insofar as possible, that you appreciate the sharp edge of grief, both its extent and its incommunicable singularity, and that you understand the sense of void and emptiness, the loss and the pain. That is what we usually mean by the word “empathy.”
Second, successful consolation requires confidence or faith. In order to receive nechamah, you must believe that it will or at least can come. It is not at all necessary to understand how it will take place--the true mourner usually believes that it can never take place through natural, rational means. Let it be so. But he must believe that it can happen, even if the means are irrational or supernatural.
Thus does Isaiah say to his disconsolate people: קול קורא במדבר, a voice cries out in the desert, כל גיא ינשא וכל הר וגבעה ישפלו, every valley will be raised and every mountain and hill will be leveled.
What is Isaiah trying to tell his people by these geographical lessons? It is, I believe, this: even as when they look at a mountainous region they cannot imagine it to be straight and level, so when they consider the peaks of their pain and the depths of their despair, they cannot believe that these can level out into normalcy. Yet they must believe! For the voice cries out in the desert of the heart and the wilderness of the soul, that if the Lord God wills it, it will happen.
In this sense, the source of nechamah is in the mourner himself. The menachem, the one who offers his condolences, can only assist. The consoler is at most a midwife of restoration and consolation, one who presides at its emergence from the depths of the heart of the one who sits in grief.
Third, where grief is the result not of accident or nature, but of defeat in a struggle, in an ideological contest or in spiritual strife, there nechamah derives from the sense of vindication. If one has gone down for the sake of an ideal, then his survivors can be consoled only when those ideals are justified in the course of time.
Thus does the Prophet say to his people, having suffered defeat not only physically and politically, but spiritually as well: ונגלה כבוד ה’ וראו כל בשר יחדו כי פי ה’ דבר, and the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh together will see that the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. The martyrs of Israel will have been vindicated when their pagan antagonists will bow their heads and accept the truth of the Lord God of Israel who reveals Himself to all men, justifying the martyrdom and the sacrifices of the holy ones of Israel.
Today, our nechamah as a people will be incomplete as long as the enemies of Israel prosper, as long as anti-Semitism is rampant--even if it be disguised as anti-Zionism, whether of the right or the left, especially the New Left, whether White or Black, whether by non-Jew or by Jew…
Finally, the fourth element we may detect in this Haftorah as to the mechanics of consolation is this: nechamah implies the replacement of the loss to the extent that it is possible.
Indeed, there can never be complete restoration for a human being. This is so, because each human being, created in the Image of God, is unique, and that which is unique cannot, by definition, be replaced.
But if there can be no complete restoration, the void can be filled subjectively, at least partly. A parent or a mate has passed on; a home can be rebuilt and a measure of nachas can still come into life.
When our mother Sarah died, her son Isaac was grief-stricken. Not until he met and married Rebecca did the situation change. Then we read: וינחם יצחק אחרי שרה אמו, that Isaac was consoled after Sarah his mother. After the sense of desolation and loneliness and emptiness, Rebecca -- as our Rabbis tell us -- brought back light and a sense of family and companionship into the bereft home. Rebecca could never replace Sarah, any more than Sarah could replace anyone else. But she could fill the void in the heart and in the life of Isaac. That is consolation.
So our Haftorah tells us of consolation. Those who were destroyed cannot be brought back to life. No one can fully take their place. But in the life of our ongoing people,
Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Barry and Marcia Levinson in honor of Rabbi Eliron & Devorah Levinson and their children, and Rabbi Aviyam & Rina Levinson and their children and by David and Deborah Pfeffer and family in memory of Ilana Pfeffer, Miriam Ilana Rena bas Dovid, on her fourth Yahrzeit and by Rochelle and Avi Schneider and family in memory of Edith Cooper, Yehudit bat Yitchak Halevi on her yahrzheit