The seven weeks leading up to the High Holidays are all about consolation. In Rabbi Deena’s drash from our August 19th service, we learned how to model G-d’s method of consoling us. You can listen to this sermon on Contact Chai and purchase tickets now to our High Holiday programming.
One of the things I get asked a lot as a rabbi is: “What should I say to someone who is sick or dying?”
We want to comfort people who are going through something difficult, and we want our comfort to work — we want them to be consoled, to feel our love and for that to help them suffer a little bit less.
The answer is, unfortunately, that there’s no magic formula for how to relieve someone’s burden of suffering. What does matter is that you say something, that you show your care and love someone. Consolation is more about the feeling than the words you say.
Consolation, the verb console, comes from the Latin for con, meaning with, and solare, meaning to soothe. Consolation is being with someone for the purpose of soothing them. When we console someone, what we’re doing is showing that they are not alone, that they will not always feel this terrible.
Jewish tradition is excellent at this. Our mourning practices, our strong tradition of visiting the sick, guide us to put ourselves with people who are suffering, to soothe them. And what tradition shows us it that the with is more important than the soothing.
We are now two weeks into a 7 week period on the Jewish calendar that is all about consolation. From Tisha b’Av, the day of destruction, to Rosh Hashanah, the day the world is born and the gates of heaven burst open anew, is exactly 7 weeks, and each week on Shabbat we read sections from the prophets that are all about G-d consoling the people after the destruction of their home and holy places — which, by the way, was also G-d’s home and holy place.
If you’re thinking, wait, didn’t we just spend 49 days counting from one holiday to another, you’re not wrong. From Passover to Shavuot, we also count out a period of exactly 7 weeks, moving from intimacy with G-d to the majestic experience of revelation.
Chasidic rabbis noticed the parallel between the 49 days of Omer, to the 49 days from Tisha b’Av to Rosh Hashanah — but they said that in this period, we start with malchut, with the bringing our attention to G-d’s majestic attributes, and end with chesed, with the attribute of lovingkindness. We start with majesty, and we get closer throughout this period to intimate, comforting love.
How does G-d console us? By doing exactly as the word consolation implies: by showing us steady presence to help soothe us that we won’t be alone.
In this week’s haftorah, there is a line in which G-d says to the people, “I never could forget you. See, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands.”
The 19th century commentator, Malbim, explains that G-d engraved us, the people, on G-d’s hands so that G-d would be reminded of us with every deed and action, and so that every deed and action that G-d undertakes will be for the sake of our redemption. This is a manifestation, or a metaphor, of with-ness to the extreme: it is like G-d is saying, “Even when I feel far from you, even when you don’t think you’re on my mind, I you are with me, and I am working to make the world a better place for you.”
The haftorah, which is taken from the book of Isaiah, goes on to describe revenge fantasies and promises from G-d that we will never again suffer in the ways we have. But note: the with comes first, the soothing comes second. Consolation is, first and foremost, about making sure someone feels accompanied on their journey.
This, too is our task. In this week’s parsha, we are instructed to “walk in all of G-d’s ways.” The Midrash helps us understand what this means, explaining that G-d is merciful so we should be merciful; G-d is righteous so we should be righteous; G-d is just so we should be just. And, the message of this 49 day period: G-d consoles the brokenhearted, so we should console the brokenhearted.
It is easy to think of the period leading up to the High Holidays as being about self-reflection, and personal growth. And it is, certainly. We are called on Yom Kippur to stand with ourselves, to be judged by ourselves in front of G-d.
But I think this 49 day journey towards intimacy, towards deep, soothing togetherness, is also meant to teach us the importance of consoling each other. If we want to walk in G-d’s ways, if we want to be more holy and pure, we must begin to look for ways to make our presence known to each other for the sake of soothing each other’s woes. In this period where we ask each other for forgiveness and think about how we fell short and want to do better, this 49 day count towards chesed reminds us to do teshuva, to return to our better intentions, with a spirit of consolation, of being soothing to each other and prizing each other’s needs.
However you plan to join us for High Holidays, and I certainly hope you will join us either virtually or in person, I hope you will feel held by this community, and that our togetherness will soothe the wounds, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, that you have sustained in this difficult year. And, however you come, thank you for being with us. Your presence, your with-ness, is a balm to us all, and we are comforted to have you here.