We just experienced Tisha B’Av, the day we mourn the loss of the beit hamikdash and many other tragedies we have endured as a people over the centuries. This week is Shabbat Nachamu, when Hashem calls to us to end our mourning. But how can we be comforted? Our beit hamikdash has been gone for almost 2000 years and antisemitism is on the rise all over the world; how do we accept comfort?
When speaking of the challenge of being comforted, there are two places in Tanach where almost the exact same language is used. The first is when Yaakov is mourning bitterly over the loss of Yosef, whom he thinks was killed by a wild animal. The Torah describes that all of Yaakov’s children tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted: “וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם”, declaring that he will go to his grave mourning over his lost son (Genesis 37:35).
The only other place in Tanach where the same phrase occurs is Yirmiyahu 31:15: “So says Hashem, a voice is heard on high, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel is crying over her children; מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם – she refuses to be comforted over her children for they are gone.” Here we encounter our matriarch Rachel weeping over her children who have been sent into exile. She cannot accept comfort over her lost sons and daughters.
What do these two cases have in common, and why is the same language used only in these two places?
First, they are the couple Yaakov and Rachel, both crying over their children who have left and not returned. In fact, both of these cases involved children who were exiled from their homes. Moreover, in neither case is there proof that they have died – Yosef’s body was not found, and Rachel’s children have been exiled and she does not know what has become of them. Rashi makes a deep psychological comment in the Yaakov story, suggesting that the reason that Yaakov could not be comforted was that Yosef was in fact still alive. If Yosef had truly died and been buried, his father would have mourned that terrible tragedy, but would have had the closure (to use modern terminology) that would have allowed him to continue living. Since Yosef was still alive, he could not be forgotten.
I’d like to suggest that the same is true for Rachel in Yirmiyahu’s telling of her bitter crying. Rachel cannot be comforted over the loss of her children because they, too, are not gone forever. They will return. In fact, the next two pesukim say, “So says Hashem, stop your voice from crying and your eyes from tearing, for there is a reward for your actions, says Hashem, and they will return from enemy land. And there is hope for your future, says Hashem, and the children will return to their boundaries.”
This week, when Hashem calls to us in the moving haftara, “Nachamu, nachamu ami,” He is telling us that after all of those generations of crying, of never giving up on the dream of the return to Zion, Yaakov and Rachel’s children will be back. We may have been exiled long ago, but we have kept the hope alive of returning. And just as Yosef ultimately reunited with his father, we too are coming home, as we witness the ingathering of the exiles back to Israel as described in the prophecies. That is the comfort that Hashem promises Rachel, and we pray it will continue to unfold in the years to come.