September 22, 2013
I was born on August 14th, 2000. According to Jewish ritual, if I had a traditional Bat Mitzvah, it would have fallen on August 1st 2012, which was Shabbat Nachamu—the Shabbat of Comfort. My Chinese/Jewish family has been a member of TCC, a humanistic Jewish congregation, since I was in first grade. In their Bat Mitzvahs, they generally don’t read from the Torah. However, because I have been questioning religious rituals since I was little, I decided to read parts of what would have been my Torah portion (Isaiah 40:1-26) and I became inspired to research it for this essay.
Shabbat Nachamu is the first Shabbat after Tisha B’AV, which commemorates the destructions of the holy temples. It is the first of the seven Shabbats of Consolation that lead up to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. As I did my research I found a cycle in the order of events that took place; Tragedy, then comfort, then new hopes. I also became interested in some of the different ways people find comfort, family, faith, and themselves. I kept thinking that it is important to remember the tragedies from the past because they form who you are and you use the lessons learned from them in the present.
On the Ninth of Av 586 B.C.E., the first Holy Temple was destroyed. The temple had been built in Jerusalem, under the third king, Solomon, son of David, during the tenth century B.C.E. The temple was considered the center of the nation or commonwealth. It was a reminder that kings come and go but the temple, and the sacrifice and worship that took place there, would stand forever. But in the year 722 B.C.E., the Northern Kingdom was invaded and conquered by the Assyrians. The southern Kingdom of Judah survived, for the time being, but was eventually attacked and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586. The Jews were then exiled from their land, but later, the Jews were not only allowed to return to Israel, but they were also granted permission to rebuild the temple. This was when the Second Jewish Commonwealth was started.
After the second Holy Temple was built, the second commonwealth thrived. It was doing even better than the first. But even with all the good happening to them, the Jews still mourned for the first holy temple and those who had fallen during the destruction. The past is always something to remember. The past forms who you are and where you come from. If you don’t know your past then you can’t know yourself.
In families, when someone dies, the family can drown in the sadness, or float with the memories. Since my grandpa died, my family has gone to the cemetery on the anniversary of his death. We remember him and miss him, and we live our lives with memories. When my mom plants her flowers, she thinks of him, especially when she’s planting the dahlias. This is true for whole societies, as well. An example from our own day is 9-11. If we had only focused on the fact that we were attacked, then we would be a country of revenge, which happened for a while. And now, while there is still a long way to go, the Freedom Tower is almost done which is a symbol for new hopes.
The second commonwealth built itself on the memories of the nation before it. It lasted for almost six hundred years, but it came to a tragic and familiar end in 70 C.E. This time it was Rome and not Babylon that destroyed the temple. But the sequence was the same: a failed revolt by the Judeans, the siege of Jerusalem, the breach in the walls around the city, and finally the destruction of the temple. If that wasn’t familiar enough, then how about the fact that the dates of major events were almost identical.
To this day, these events are remembered and observed by traditional Jews with many rituals. The cycle begins with a minor fast on the day that it is said the walls were penetrated and the enemy entered the city. Special prayers and a special Torah reading known as Va’ye’chal is recited on all fast days. There is then a three-week span until Tisha B’Av, when mourning begins. During those three weeks, observant Jews do not celebrate weddings, play joyful music, dance, wear new clothes, or get haircuts. In the last nine days, the laws of mourning get intense. There is to be no laundry except for the essentials, there is no swimming, there is no eating meat or poultry, there is no drinking wine, and you are supposed to refrain from taking baths or showers. This is especially challenging because it is in the middle of the summer! When it gets super hot, you can’t go swimming or even take a shower. During this period, you aren’t supposed to have fun or laugh or even greet each other with a smile.
I think the reason you are not supposed to have fun and laugh during this period is because laughter and fun bring you joy, and you shouldn’t be happy when other people die or a tragedy happens. Maybe another reason is because having fun and laughing distracts your mind from something you don’t want to think about. You are supposed to be focused on your own thoughts and feelings about the events and let others focus on their thoughts and grief, as well. Traditionally, Jews believe that during the period of mourning, the heart and mind are supposed to be focused on the tragedies of the past.
This year, Tisha B’av fell on July 16th. I went to an evening Tisha B’Av service at B’nai Jeshrun, a Jewish synagogue on the Upper West Side. I remember being extremely bored. And then my foot fell asleep and I got antsy. Everybody sat on the floor, with the lights out, using flashlights, while people took turns chanting from the book of Eichah, from Lamentations. People were telling a story about their past, as a community. This is different from how Humanistic Jews remember Tisha B’Av. Humanistic Jews do not set aside a specific day for fasting and mourning. They recognize the destruction of the Temples as terrible events in Jewish history but they don’t miss the traditional sacrificial service that took place in the Temple or turn these events into days of mourning.
The seven weeks following the Shabbat of Comfort lead up to Rosh Hashana, which then leads into Yom Kippur, when Jews typically fast again and ask for forgiveness for their sins. For secular Jews, on the other hand, the day is about meditation, self-examination, and self-forgiveness. While some still fast, many no longer do so.
So Tisha B’Av is the time when you are in grief. The Shabbat of Comfort is when you are comforted by people around you, and Rosh Hashana, being the start of a new year, is when you start again with new hopes.
Interestingly, my dad’s Chinese family story follows a similar cycle. In the 30’s, my dad’s grandpa built a house in Canton, a large city in southern China. The house was actually four houses connected by walls, because he believed that family should always stay together. During World War II, the Japanese invaded China. My dad’s grandfather had to flee with his family, which meant leaving the family house. The house was occupied by the Japanese as a headquarters because it was so large. When the Japanese were forced out of China, they destroyed the house. My dad’s grandfather then started all over again and rebuilt the house, after which life was good and the family was happy. But then Communism took hold, forcing Tao Sing and his family to flee to Hong Kong, because he was educated and intellectual. Life was good in Hong Kong, but the family wanted a better education so they left, losing their home again.
The Laio family then moved to America, but struggled to find a home. Tao Sing didn’t want to own another house for fear of losing it like the past two. However, they were a big family so they had to be split up and live separately. Once they were living together again, everybody in the family had to work, even the kids going to high school. They were disappointed because they had been told America was the “Golden Mountain”. Yet, there was still a significant amount of comfort and hope between the repeating cycles of tragedy, which kept the family together as they started over again
While family or community can provide needed comfort, some people find it in faith. When my maternal grandpa died, my uncle Andy went to temple twice a day for a whole year, as is the religious tradition. My grandpa had done that when his dad died too, which makes me wonder if they prayed for comfort from God or if the tradition is what made this ritual meaningful. My Aunt Lucille gets comfort from praying and she goes to church every Sunday.
Which brings me back to Shabbat Nachamu. It is called Shabbat Nachamu because of the first words in the service’s Haftorah reading. It begins:“‘Console, Console my people,’ says your God.” Later, the passage says:
Every valley shall be raised, and every mountain and hill shall be lowered, the rough ground shall become level, and the rugged places a plain.
It then goes on to say:
“All people are like grass, and all their kindness is like the blossom of the field.”
I think this is a metaphor saying that individuals are just one in a million, like blades of grass in a field. The passage continues;
The grass shall dry out, the blossoms shall wilt, but the word of our God shall last forever.
This is saying that people will die, and generations will pass, but the word of God will last forever. The word of our God, I think, is a metaphor for stories. Maybe God is a grand story teller, like my Grandpa was. Stories are passed down through generations. Family genes might also be seen as a kind of scientific metaphor. People are born to parents and ancestors that shape who they are biologically, morally and culturally, and they in turn form communities and nations.
Religious Jews believe that God guarantees redemption. At the same time, many people blame tragedies on people’s sins, as if the tragedy were a punishment from God himself. But redemption means that if you do something bad, you are guaranteed a second chance if you then do good things in the world. While God might guarantee redemption, when, where and how it is achieved depends on the actions of his children. The word Eicha is very important. It means “wherefore.” One interpretation of that is “wherefore is the sacred city?” Some people wonder where God is when bad things happen, so this could also mean, “where is God?” But the Hebrew letters also spell Ayeka, which means “where are you?” This could mean “where are you—the people, myself?” How can I effect the world?
The portion ends with Isaiah 40:26:
Because of his great might and because He is strong in power, no one is missing.
However, I find this wrong because a lot of people are missing. A lot of people have died. A lot of people have lost loved ones that are important to them, and they need comfort. Who is to provide that comfort? God? The community? Family?
It is said that the first temple was destroyed as a punishment for worshipping idols and that the second was destroyed as a punishment for hatred. But Rabbi Schweitzer told me that he rejects this idea just as we don’t accept the idea that the Holocaust is punishment for sins. He says that this line of thought unfairly blames and punishes the victim.
On Saturday, July 20th, I went to the synagogue again for the Shabbat of Comfort service. The rabbi’s sermon related directly to my questions about whether we receive comfort and redemption from a higher power or from within. He said that if you are able to see through the bad and see God, you will be a part of the change and will feel the joy. He said that God was truth, Emet, but he also said that truth is inside you. I think that means that you are your own truth, so in a sense, you are your own God.
The rabbi at the service said that memories are not just in the past. What we do with the memories now is what is important. When we see the destructive powers of people throughout the world, it should motivate us to want change both nationally and inside ourselves. Nowhere in the Haftorah portion for Shabbat Nachamu does it say anything about an enemy. The rabbi described it as an internal enemy. He referred to Rabbi Heschel, who said “The opposite of good is not evil, it is indifference.” He said that comfort comes from a place of vision and hope, and that we have to be willing to do this good work in the world ourselves. This is a humanistic idea.
This way of thinking during the start of the 7 Shabbats of Consolation ultimately brings us to the new year (Rosh Hashana) and the hope that annual rebirth implies.
Many people get comfort from putting their faith in a greater power. They feel that the greater voice, or whatever they are putting their faith into, is God. But what if God is really just yourself? I’m not sure whether there is a God or not. But I do know that when I think of “God”, I think of someone who is making things happen and is watching over me. But that could also just describe myself. People make things happen and people watch over themselves and each other. So maybe God isn’t an all powerful creature who grants our wishes and makes a path for everyone. Maybe God is the voice inside yourself and that voice makes a path for you and makes your wishes and ambitions come true by helping you to achieve them. It’s more about what you do with your own power than about how much external or cosmic power you have.
I get comfort from all of this. I get comfort from my family and from my friends. I get comfort from myself and my faith, even though I am not fully sure of what I put my faith in. When people die or something bad happens, you are sad, it is the way of life–it’s how people work. When religious Jews mourn, they look to God for comfort, and when secular Jews mourn, they look to each other for comfort. I do believe that it is important to remember the past. It is important to not forget. From writing this paper, I have not figured out what I believe in or if there truly is a God or not, but who has by 13? It is important to remember past tragedies and to help each other find hope after they occur. Remembering is what defines you as a person. Remembering where you come from. Remembering how you got to where you are, remembering what you’ve learned along the way. It is all what makes you you, remembrance and memories are what make a people human.