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Thought for the Day: Finding Comfort in a Time of Tragedy

The word we use for the concept of comforting/consoling mourners in Hebrew is "נחמה".  As is often the case, much is lost in translation.  In this case, the loss is so great as to be nearly false.  Consider the first two uses of that word in the Torah.  First, with the birth of Noach, we are told that he was give than name because "זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ " -- usually translated as: this one will give us rest/respite (B'reishis 5:29).  Only a few verses later, when the Torah notes the evil that is filling the world because of mankind, the Torah tells about HaShem "וַיִּנָּחֶם" --- usually translated as: regretted (B'reishis 6:6).  Neither has much to do with consolation.  Moreover, the concept of HaShem slapping His Forehead in regret is just this side of ludicrous.

Sp what does נחמה mean, anyway?  The most accurate description I have heard is "to alter one's perspective and/or approach".  (Reason number 417 why ArtScroll hasn't hired me: my translations do not flow trippingly off the tongue.)  Noach's birth was going to bring about a new perspective for mankind.  The evil that had developed in the world required a different approach/change of game plan to managing the world.  So to comfort a mourner means to offer him a new or refined perspective.  To be comforted, a mourner needs to see his tragedy in a new light; something that has meaning, instead of a random, vicious attack.  When I had chemotherapy, I understood that the chemicals were curing me; the suffering was bearable because I knew it fit into a bigger picture and it was for the good.  I didn't know how the chemicals really worked; I simply knew that the experts in the field all agreed this was the prescribed cure.  I literally trusted those experts with my life.  [Aside: The pain and suffering of the chemotherapy was not lessened by my knowledge, only made bearable.  The suffering of my young children was actually less bearable, precisely because they really couldn't understand what was happening to their father.]

Chazal -- our sages of blessed memory -- are our experts.  Their analysis of events guides us in our lives.  The gemara at the end of Makkos tells us that four of our greatest sages -- Rabban Gamliel, R' Elazar ben Azarya, R' Y'hoshua, and R' Akiva arrive in Yerushalayim and saw a fox running out of the ruins of the most holy places of the Beis HaMikdash.  Rabban Gamliel, R' Elazar ben Azarya, R' Y'hoshua started crying, but R' Akiva smiled.  The three asked R' Akiva why he was smiling; he replied that they should tell him why they were crying.  They replied with some astonishment: a place of such intense holiness is now so desolate that animals make it their home; how can one not cry?  R' Akiva replied: that is why I am smiling: until I saw the fulfillment of the harsh prophecies, I was afraid that I would not see the fulfillment of the beautiful prophecies; now that I see the one, I have confidence in the other.  The other sages replied, the the gemara ends with: you have comforted us, Akiva, you have comforted us.

It is hard sometimes to believe in the great things that are foretold explicitly and in our medrashic literature about the future.  Can the world really change so much?  There can really be complete peace and harmony?  There can really be the idyllic existence in this world foretold by our prophets?  Go back and read the tochacha/rebuke in Ki Savo and in B'chukosai.  Is there anything that is described that we have not experienced; either first hand or in our history?  And the Torah tells us why: we accepted HaShem's Torah, a prescription for life.  If a person smokes, though, he damages his life and risks lung and heart disease.  If a person strays from the Torah, he damages his eternal life and risks terrible consequences.  Once you see that the doctor is right about the disease, you believe him about the cure.

The mourner doesn't need to understand how the tragedy fits into the big picture nor how it is ultimately for the good; he simply needs to know that there is a bigger picture and that it ultimately is for the good.  That makes the suffering bearable and makes the cure achievable.


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