In his incredible book, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared,” Rabbi Alan Lew writes of how each of our lives “is a strange dance of pushing forward to get back home.” Pushing forward to get back home. And he writes of the power of this particular quarter of the year in which we find ourselves right now (no, not the summer, but the period of months that begin just before Tisha b’Av and continue through the High Holy Days) to impact our path on that journey, all through the process of teshuvah – that turning and returning to the best of who we can yet be. For most, I think, teshuvah-talk doesn’t really start until Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the truth is, Jewish tradition begins the teshuvah conversation much earlier – seven weeks earlier to be precise, marking the start of a period of time that many, myself included, believe is of real consequence.
On Tisha b’Av, we lament the calamities of our people throughout history, but we also lament the calamities of our own lives. The Temple is always a metaphor for the soul’s wholeness, and when we mourn the Temple’s destruction, we mourn too the brokenness of our own souls, of our relationships with each other, of the brokenness and destruction in our world. Something that this year in particular wasn’t hard to do. According to Lew, “Tisha b’Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives – from God, from ourselves and from others... Teshuvah is the gesture by which we seek to heal this alienation and find connection, reconciliation, and anchoring in our lives.”
And so this Shabbat, the first Shabbat after Tisha b’Av represents our first step out from the exile and despair of Tisha b’Av. It is called Shabbat Nachamu- "Shabbat of Comfort," referring to the opening verses in the Haftara we recite tomorrow morning, where the prophet Isaiah eases the people’s anguish after the destruction: Nachamu nachamu ami – take comfort, take comfort my people. So whereas Tisha b’Av immerses our souls in a place of darkness, this Shabbat of nechama, of comfort, comes to teach that although desolation and alienation feel so all-consuming, we must not give up hope, we cannot shut your eyes from seeing our self and our world from the way they might yet be.
But how do we do that? How do we move from immersive despondence to eyes and heart open to the promise of a better tomorrow?
This week’s Torah portion, which is always read on Shabbat Nachamu offers a powerful insight right as it opens, as Moses recounts what is perhaps one of, if not the most heart wrenching part of his own story. Speaking to the generation that will cross over into the Promised Land, Moses shares this with them: I pleaded with God, I begged God with all my soul “O God, You let me see the works of your greatness and your mighty hand. You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Please, let me cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan.”
But God says, no. Moses continues: “But God would not grant me my wish and said, “Rav lach!” Enough! Never speak to me of this again.”
Moses - the only one to see God face to face - so longs just to touch, to step onto the land, to which he’s dedicated his life to lead the Jewish people that he literally begs God to take back the Divine punishment that forbids him to get there. “God, you can do anything, he says, I’ve seen you perform miracles. Please, do this one thing for me, your most loyal servant.”
And still, God says no, rav lach, you already have so much Moses. This is enough. Moses, who has had it all, is left with one thing he can’t have. He is left longing for something else.
So many of us understand this story as one of failure or God’s abandonment, but I think we read it on Shabbat Nachamu because it is in fact just the opposite, as it gives us back our sense of life. We don’t ever get there – to the finish line. It’s why every year at Passover, we always say “Next year in Jerusalem.” We never get there. None of us do. And the truth is, every arrival that seems like a finish line, really only turns out to be another starting point. But there is a beauty and a gift of longing deeply for something. It gives us something to strive for, something to move towards, in particular in times when it would otherwise seem like we couldn’t go on. Robert Browning must have known this deep Torah truth when he famously wrote: “Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”
So this day, this Shabbat of comfort, amidst a still shattered world, we are called to rise up from amidst the ashes, and ask ourselves what is it that we long for? What is it that we ache for? What triggers in us a sense of yearning that is strong enough to drive us forward out of yesterday and into tomorrow? And then, can we hold on to that longing, that yearning to really feel it sink it and move us?
So as we move forward for the next seven weeks leading us up to Rosh Hashanah, the renewal of our world and our souls, we need to awaken this longing in our souls. We can ask ourselves: in what way are we trading in our deepest desires for something less than – in what way have we placated our souls with nourishment that doesn’t truly sate us? And how can we raise up our awareness of our longings so that it might become a vehicle turning us toward teshuvah, pushing us forward to get back home?
It’s not about destination. It is always about the journey. It is the longing that pulls us toward wholeness. It is the longing that will bring us back home.