Past Perfect: Small comforts

The great moments of complete satisfaction in our lives are rare and very far between.

Our life story is made up of great tragedies and small comforts. The tragedies are deemed great because they are deemed to be of an irreversible nature. Our beloved kin who have passed away are not coming back to us in this current world. For all nations, ultimate defeat usually means the end of empire if not the end of the nation itself. Therefore any measure of later comfort is considered small relative to the agonizing loss sustained. Because of this, the prophet Isaiah comforts us doubly by repeating the word nahamu - be comforted - twice in the haftara we read on the Shabbat following Tisha Be'av - Shabbat Nahamu - the Sabbath of comfort. The prophet wishes to emphasize that in reality there are no small comforts in life. Every instance of comfort and consolation, no matter how insignificant it may initially appear to be, is to be treasured and appreciated. The great moments of complete satisfaction in our lives are rare and very far between. Most of the time we are sustained by the small comforts of our everyday lives - family, friends, hopes and aspirations, faith and Jewish society. In our drive to experience full consolation - something almost impossible to achieve - we neglect to accept the small comforts of life graciously and with gratitude. Therefore the prophet repeats and emphasizes the word nahamu - almost a command to be comforted - since the nature of humans is to consider what they deem as small comforts lightly. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed 1,939 years ago. It has not been rebuilt, neither by Jewish efforts nor by heavenly intervention. An independent Jewish state has nonetheless arisen in the Land of Israel. The state is imperfect, socially, economically, politically and spiritually. Many times I have heard people say, only half-jokingly - while waiting in line at one of our many government offices "For this we waited 2,000 years?!" The great and grandiose dreams that many associated with the advent of the messianic era have not yet materialized. We are still far from peace and security, from social equality and from a spiritually oriented society. We are riven with internal divisions, unreasoning hatreds and grumbling complaints. We have reached the Promised Land, but many feel that its promise has been denied us. So therefore the not-so-small comfort of being able to live in the Land of Israel in an independent Jewish state ends up not being appreciated and for many Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, not even recognized. It is as though Jewish redemption and rebuilding is an all-or-nothing matter. And if we don't yet have it all, many somehow feel that we have nothing. And we buttress this wrong attitude with piety or distorted ideas of humanism accompanied by infantile sloganeering. We behave like a spoiled child rejecting or demeaning a gift given to it because it feels that the gift is somehow inadequate. That is not only bad attitude, it is bad manners. The rabbis of Halacha and of the Talmud were master psychologists of the human spirit. They made provision for releasing grief and restoring emotional equilibrium in measured stages - seven days, 30 days, a year, annual memorial days. Each of these stages brings only a small measure of comfort in gradual measure as compared to the terrible shocking blow of tragedy itself. There is only one Shabbat Hazon - the dark Shabbat of sadness that precedes Tisha Be'av. Its impact is sudden, enormous and devastating. However there are seven Shabbatot of comfort that follow Tisha Be'av. Comfort apparently comes in small and, of necessity, repetitious doses. Each small comfort is to be appreciated and savored on its own terms. None of the comforts are complete in themselves. They are small in comparison to the great national tragedy that befell us. Yet cumulatively they allow us to be comforted and begin again our personal and national missions. The rabbis questioned Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai why he did not ask the Roman general (soon to be emperor) Vespasian for the right to rebuild the Temple. He replied that he only wished for now a hatzala purta - a small salvation and comfort. The small salvation and comfort was the yeshiva at Yavne and its scholars. This small salvation fueled Jewish survival throughout the long dark night of the exile. We should appreciate and be grateful for our current hatzala purta - our wondrous small comfort. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.