Comfort, my people, take comfort.
This Shabbat and its haftarah take their name, Nachumu, from the opening words of Isaiah 40: ‘Comfort, my people, take comfort, says your God.’
We have entered into the weeks of comfort, the weeks between Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur. Here, the prophets promise us redemption and renewal if only we will correct our ways. It is a great build-up to the High Holy Days, leading us through the remaining summer months with a message of mercy.
After Tisha b’Av, we so need that reassurance. Tisha b’Av – or the 9th of Av – is a day of intense mourning in the Jewish calendar, which occurred during the week from Wednesday to Thursday nights. It recalls the destruction of the First and Second Temples by successive Empires in the days of our biblical ancestors. It summons Jewish congregations to lament our exiled state and God’s apparent absence from the world.
It is not a fast that is marked in all Reform communities, because it involves grieving for the Temple, which we do not want rebuilt, and because it wallows in so much misery, which we do not want to participate in.
Nevertheless, for the last 5 years, I have diligently engaged in Tisha b’Av rituals. This is mostly practical. On Yom Kippur, I’m often so busy curating religious experiences for others that I don’t get round to having one myself. My head is stuck on the next page in the prayer book, recalling the next tune, or remembering the complicated Hebrew I’ll read later. Tisha b’Av gives me a chance to have my own solemn day, where other people lead the services for me, and I can just use the time to reflect.
Most years, I go to Bevis Marks, the impressive Sephardi-Orthodox synagogue in central London. It is quite an experience. The building’s elegant chandeliers are extinguished. The beautiful decor is covered over with black sheets. A chazan chants the haunting melody of Eichah, beginning: “how lonely sits this city that was once full of people.” A choir of harmonious men chants kinot – dirges – recalling the gruesome details of the destruction of the Temple, and connecting them to every tragedy Jewish people have ever endured.
But this year, I couldn’t go to Bevis Marks. Nobody could. Coronavirus has made physical attendance of synagogues too dangerous. Even those that have braved it have only permitted a tiny number to attend, with strict social distancing and masked faces. The Spanish and Portuguese community was especially hit by Covid back in March, so it makes sense that they would be cautious.
But what about me? What would I do? I depended on the spiritual experience of Tisha b’Av to see me through the rest of the year, and now the gates were closed. I found myself wondering how it would be possible to do anything meaningful if I couldn’t do it the way I always had.
But I decided, for my own sake, I would make an effort. On Wednesday evening, I switched off my phone and tuned in to the streamed services from Lauderdale Road. I read through the Reform liturgies on my own, had one last glass of water before sundown, then went to bed. When I got up in the morning, I dressed as if going to synagogue, and watched a recording of the proceedings from the Kotel. I spent the day intermittently meditating, praying, studying texts and thinking about all the brokenness in the world.
For the first time, the loss of the Temple actually meant something to me. It wasn’t that I suddenly had a desire to return to animal sacrifices and priestly hierarchy, but I felt that I could emotionally connect to the verses in a new way. It can be really devastating to be away from the spiritual space to which you are accustomed. It is a shock to the system to realise that you can’t pray the way you used to.
And, strangely, I liked that I had made the connection. I liked that I could feel some new kinship with Jeremiah and the texts of Scripture. I liked knowing that the things I was experiencing had been suffered by others before. Because when I remembered that they had struggled, I also remembered that they had survived. In the face of difficult times, they had renewed Judaism, and changed its practices so that its message could continue.
I found myself enjoying marking the day alone. I didn’t feel like I was performing piety for others, but I was praying sincerely of my own accord. I realised that I, too, could adapt and reinvent.
In this week’s haftarah, Isaiah tells us: ‘The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.’ It wasn’t the building that mattered, it was the words that were spoken there.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was among the few sages who remained. He did not try to rebuild the city walls. He tried to rebuild Judaism. He established an academy at Yavne and taught Judaism as he had received it, bringing in new teachings to adapt the religion to post-Temple times. Rabbi Yohanan knew that the words of Torah were more enduring than any citadel.
Every edifice will eventually crumble. Temples, synagogues and familiar buildings get torn down, eroded and replaced. But the moral message of Judaism – the meaning we get from our texts – that will endure forever.
We now begin our ascent to the High Holy Days, with Rosh haShanah only seven weeks away. As we approach these important feasts and fasts, we may feel tempted to despair that the usual building won’t be there. It is true that we will not do things in our usual way. But like generations of Jews before us, we will find new ways to make our liturgy meaningful and turn its moral messages to our own day.
I encourage you to emotionally prepare yourselves for doing the High Holy Days differently. Think about how you can dress, act and participate so that the period will be meaningful for you.
We will explore new ways of praying, meditating, studying and feeling. And we will come out of this experience with a Judaism that has been transformed and renewed. It will be stronger, more versatile, and better equipped to face any crisis that may come. As Isaiah promised, we will soar on wings like eagles and run without ever growing faint.
So take comfort, my people, take comfort.
I gave this sermon on Saturday 1st August 2020 for Parashat Vaetchanan/ Shabbat Nachumu at Glasgow Reform Synagogue, over Zoom.
 Isa 40:1
 Lam 1:1
 Lam 1:4
 Isa 40:8
 Eichah Rabbah 1:31
 Isa 40:31