Consolation Prizes (Ideas #38)

Nachmu, Nachmu Ami
While mourning is something that we seem to understand intuitively, such is not the case with consolation. Even as our experience tells us that we do get consoled after the loss of a loved one, it leaves us with a sense of intellectual ambivalence. The concept of consolation seems somewhat shallow. In thinking of human loss, there is nothing that can take such loss away. Certainly, we are not expected to simply forget what was important in our lives. Likewise, there is nothing that can really mitigate the finality of our losses. In fact, mourning is recognition of one's having forever missed an opportunity to appreciate the full importance of what we once had. (see Ideas #10).

Yet consolation is an important part of our personal life cycle as well as the cycle of the national Jewish year. With Tisha b'Av behind us, we read haftarot that are chosen to console us. We are told that things will work out in the end; that better days will return. A happy historical ending, however, does not take away the pain of all those that will have suffered until we reach those promised better times.

The nuance revealed by the Hebrew word "nachem" may help us better understand what we are supposed to feel. When G-d decides to destroy the world through the flood, the Biblical text tells us that he was "yinachem" from having created man (Bereishit 6:6). Here, the word can clearly not be translated as being consoled. Rather, as in many other places, the meaning seems to be to change one's mind, or to regret.

Analyzing the different uses of the word, one sees that the word "nachem" indicates a change of orientation towards something. It can indicate a negative reorientation just as easily as it can indicate a positive one. As such, consolation seems to be the reorientation needed by survivors to continue being productive in their lives.

Reorientation involves a reordering of that which is important in our lives. Our lives are made up of so many subjective decisions regarding what is important and what is not. The famed American educator, John Dewey, gives an example of this when he writes about adapting to life in a new city - at first many stores, streets, etc. seem equally important, since we don't know what is most useful to us. After a while we adapt to our surroundings by filtering out that which we think is not useful to us.(1) To check the truth of this, imagine any large shopping mall that one frequents. Even among the stores we do not visit, some are quite familiar and others not at all - we have assigned value to certain stores and not to others. When a new need arises, we will familiarize ourselves with stores that we had never noticed.

Loss necessarily creates a vacuum in our lives whereas consolation is the process of reordering our focus in view of emerging new needs. Consolation allows us to displace some of the importance once attributed to what we've lost onto a new locus. So when Yitzchak marries Rivka, we are told (Bereishit 24:67) that he is finally consoled for his mother. He finally finds a new locus for his appreciation of feminine compassion and care that was embodied by his mother.

In the case of Yitzchak, someone new came into his life to enable him to find what was taken away. Much more frequently, we must make do with what was always in front of us, but remained overshadowed by something greater.

In the case of the Beit haMikdash, one of the main foci of our spirituality was taken away. Each year, we need to first internalize that loss, realizing how great an opportunity the Beit haMikdash represented. Once we have done that, we need to seek how to fill the vacuum left in the wake of its destruction. How indeed? If the Beit haMikdash represented a clear channel for interaction with G-d, we are obligated to seek other, if more indirect, channels that have survived.

At least two such channels exist - prayer and appreciation of the Divine imprint in nature. It may not be coincidental that Av is the month where we traditionally take our vacations which allow for greater exposure to nature, and Elul can be described as a month of prayer. The complete dialogue between man and G-d that existed in the Beit haMikdash can actually be divided into its component parts in the next two months. In Av, we can allow G-d to speak to us. In Elul, we can speak to G-d.

In Av, we can seek our inspiration in nature. We can admire a world filled with tremendous beauty and harmony. I believe this to be one of the greatest religious experiences available to us today. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe z'l once spoke about the opportunity missed by those who find grandiose views on their vacations, only to respond by snapping a camera and moving on. When we see the waves on the seashore, majestic valleys, sunsets, and the like, we have a tremendous religious opportunity placed in front of us. Chazal formulated several berachot to formalize these opportunities - the fact that these berachot have fallen into disuse may represent a much greater tragedy than we realize. Whether we make the berachot or not, let us not waste the few chances we have to feel G-d's presence in our overly urbanized lives.

A month of Av filled with religious inspiration can allow us to better exploit the second area of religious connection allowed to us - the world of prayer. Our religious dedication in the month of Elul, culminating in the High Holidays, naturally focuses on prayer. Just as the first set of three berachot in the Amidah allow us to focus on Whom we are addressing, the period of consolation that follows Tisha b'Av can allow us to have greater appreciation and thus connection to Whom we will be addressing in the month of Elul.

The various rituals of Av and Elul allow us to be more prepared for Rosh Hashanah without a Beit haMikdash. As stated above, we are moved to reorient ourselves to the most productive spiritual channels that we have without the Beit haMikdash. Like most ritual, however, it does not work automatically. It is up to us to infuse the rituals of mourning and consolation with the meaning implicit in them. 

(1) John Dewey, Democracy and Education. p.49