nachamu – Comfort
(Sing Nachamu by Elana Arian, ending with the English verse)
Nachamu Nachamu, ami yomar Eloheichem (2x)
Comfort us, comfort us, in our wilderness
Comfort us, as we struggle to take care of one another
Comfort us, comfort us in our wilderness
Comfort us, as we struggle with this world
This world. This magical, mysterious, magnificent world. A world of unfathomable artistry, woven in reassuring order. Day always follows night, and the tiny spiral of a single snail shell mimics the cosmic swirl of more than 100 billion stars rushing through a galaxy. Even more miraculously—we are a part of it.
But making our way through this majestic creation sometimes feels like trudging aimlessly through a wilderness—a frightening, random universe providing few guarantees. Life is a wonder! But it isn’t easy.
The truth is, I’m so exhausted from the year that passed, and the thought of the year ahead, that a part of me wishes I were home in my slippers, watching this service via Livestream. Perhaps you’re like me—weary from the daily onslaught of warring words and ugly insults, minute-by-minute tracking of catastrophic storms, incessant reporting of polls. We face crises in our neighborhoods, in our capital, at our borders, in our homeland. Safety has a different meaning now. We are on edge—the backfire of motorcycles sent crowds in Times Square into a panic, a stampede of people believing they were running for their lives. Collective trauma is invading our psyche.
And these blows are compounded by personal struggles: frightening diagnoses, work instability, splintering relationships, loneliness. We miss people who should be by our side. We wrestle inner demons, carry the heartache of our loved ones’ hardships.
We do our best to manage. At times we are energized by passion and purpose, and then suddenly it seems all our efforts are thwarted. I see even the most capable and caring people hit a saturation point. Sometimes going numb gets us through the day.
Jews know what it means to wander in the wilderness. That is the place of our beginnings, where we were born as a people at the time of Moses, and where we learned to be a people, during the period of our earliest sages. Let us learn from legend.
Life in third century Palestine was growing dimmer and more dangerous. Rabbi Joshua haLevi was losing hope. Our Temple was rubble. The foundational system of law that defined us as a nation was shaken. His generation was beginning to rebuild, but the task felt overwhelming, and success, unlikely. The corrupt and unstable Roman government had lessening tolerance for difference, a narrowed understanding of who was a legitimate Roman. Authorities espoused anti-Jewish rhetoric and legislated discriminatory policies. Poverty and persecution were on the rise.
Joshua prayed for a redeemer—perhaps a competent king, or a moral military leader. Then he remembered that he had an in with Elijah, the harbinger of the Messiah who ascended to the skies in a fiery chariot, and has since remained a mystical messenger between heaven and earth.
So he went to the prophet, and pled: “Elijah, We’ve been waiting patiently. When will the Messiah come? Because this would be a really great time for redemption.”
Elijah said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
“Ask the Messiah? How on earth would I do that?”
Elijah responded, “She’s here. She’s been here. You’ve probably walked right past her. Go to the gates of Rome, to the area where the lepers are segregated.”
Joshua excitedly thanked Elijah, and just as he was about to set off, he turned back and asked, “Elijah, How will I recognize her?”
Elijah responded, “The lepers unbind all of their bandages, cleanse every one of their wounds, and then rebind them all. But the Messiah tends to her wounds one at a time. That way she will be ready to act when we are.”
When Joshua got to Rome, the stench of filth and neglect led him to the lepers’ quarter. And there, amid the aching hordes, he found the Messiah, doing exactly what Elijah described—unbinding one wound, cleansing it, re-binding, and then moving to the next.
He approached her and blurted out, “Messiah, the world desperately needs you! When will you come?”
She looked up at him, and said, matter-of-factly, “Today.”
Joshua rushed home to wait. The sun set, no Messiah. “OK,” he thought, “maybe she meant 24 hours.” The sun rose, the sun set, no Messiah. He waited another day, and another and another…
Finally, bitterly betrayed he went back to Elijah. “Master, the Messiah lied to me. Fake news from the Messiah! Days ago she said she was coming, and she didn’t!”
Elijah smiled sadly. “Joshua, you stopped listening when you heard what you wanted to hear. What she said was, ‘Today… if you would hear my voice.’”
Where are we in this legend?
I was first drawn by plight of the lepers. It’s been more than two years of whack-a-mole—desperately swinging a mallet to quash one disaster, when two more pop up. Every event is “breaking news” and cries out for a response. Imprisoned refugee toddlers struggle for sleep, denied darkness, diapers, and the daily touch of their parents…a pregnant woman is charged with manslaughter for initiating a fight resulting in her fetus absorbing a bullet…families from Flint still fear drinking water from their sinks.
Coverage of Jeffrey Epstein tears off the scab of Larry Nassar, tears of the scab of Kavanaugh, tears off the scab of Weinstein, tears off the scab of the Access Hollywood tape, tears off the scab of Cosby, tears off the scab of the blue dress, tears off the scab of the Thomas hearings, tears off the scabs of individual assaults and injuries that never made headlines, but are permanent personal narratives embedded in our bodies.
It’s been a frenzy of ripping off one bandage, then another and another and another, while all the time, new sores emerge and old sores re-open. Like the lepers, the pain of so many exposed wounds paralyzes. It’s impossible to give each one the attention it requires.
Then again, we know where Joshua is coming from. How many of us would love for someone to swoop in and fix everything? Who isn’t seeking a savior? Mueller was a false Messiah for hopefuls on both sides of the political spectrum, and the deification of the whistleblower is underway. We chase messianic fix-alls, not just nationally, but also in our personal lives: the toughest trainer, the preeminent doctor, the most connected college counselor.
So we can understand Joshua’s excitement when Elijah gives him the news he dreamed of. The Messiah was right there! Joshua is deeply compassionate and committed, doing all he can to improve society’s dire situation. But then when he thinks, “Phew, someone else has got this,” he turns his back and bolts. It seems out of character. You figure he would let out a cheer, gulp down a goblet of wine, and then lean in! Help change bandages, at least offer a smile.
We are too well aware, some change is beyond our reach, and relies on those in authority. In those situations, our most effective course of action is to demand their attention. But once we do, we still need to stay present. Joshua is literally standing in the most despairing and deteriorating area in the Empire, a microcosm of the global misery which drove him to be there in the first place. He aches for healing—for himself, his people, humanity, the world. So why does he leave the lepers?
Joshua forgets that he, like each of us, holds power that no one else does, not even the Messiah. Our actions may seem inconsequential, but looking into the eyes of society’s outcasts, honoring even one person’s hardship, changes that person’s life, and therefore, changes the world.
So we might relate to the lepers, we might relate to Joshua…I won’t ask who thinks they’re the Messiah. But let’s consider what she is teaching us. Because in this story, the Messiah is surprisingly human. She, herself, is wounded, terribly wounded. We can’t expect her to solve all of our problems, when she can’t do that for herself. But we can look to how she lives with her hurt and heals, focusing on one sore at a time. She unbinds the bandage, does what she can for that wound and then covers it up. It isn’t cured. The pulsing pressure still pushes under the bandage, but it’s healthier than it was before. Good enough is good enough. And in between caring for her own hurts, the Messiah is present for something else or someone else. She doesn’t lose herself in her pain, nor does she deny it.
And let’s not forget Elijah, the timeless prophet, who looks straight into the mess of the world and still maintains conviction that things can get better. Teenage environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, is a modern day Elijah, whose voice pierces through the din of our world’s demise. Some see her as a savior. But Greta adamantly rejects that characterization. She directs attention away from herself, toward the crisis, and what we can do about it.
Elijah says to Joshua, “Don’t ask me about saving the world. The Messiah is right here, and has been all along! Just listen to her.” Greta says to us, “Don’t ask me what to do. The scientists are right here and have been all along. Listen to them! See the damage and listen to your own fear. It’s right here.”
Nachamu Nachaumu—comfort, comfort! These words first sounded after the Temple in Jerusalem fell. Exiled from our land, we faced a wilderness of terrifying proportions. Joshua lived in the wake of that disaster. He cried out to the Messiah, desperate to know there would be a future for the Jews, and a brighter one for all. Joshua couldn’t trust that all the effort he and his colleagues were pouring into codifying the law, transforming tradition, and building a kinder world, would matter. And yet, we know that those efforts made all the difference. They are the reason we are here today.
We, like Joshua, are caught in a time when norms are being upended and systems we trusted are failing. We do what we can, and still, it may feel like hope is slipping away, like we can’t bandage fast enough.
Let’s remember—we are the inheritors of a tradition and part of a people whose history has been marked by struggle and survival. Each generation has built upon the efforts of the last, challenged and strengthened by its own external and internal struggles. We are all in this together! We all take turns being the Messiah, the prophet, the leper, the rabbi, sharing pain without shame, calling for action, heeding voices beyond our own, stepping out and jumping back in, caring, caring, caring, always caring! Weeping for our world, and marveling at its majesty, from the shells in the deep, to the stars in the heights.
Nachamu, nachamu…These words, resonating through the centuries, echo still today. The lyrics we heard earlier suggest it is a plea from us to God: “Comfort us, Comfort us.” Biblical commentators suggest they are from God, calling to the exiled people: “Be comforted, be comforted.” Tonight, let’s sing them to one another—a shofar blast of resistance and resilience, a call of affirmation: “We comfort us, we comfort us,” caring and struggling together.
Nachamu Nachamu, ami yomar Eloheichem
We comfort us, we comfort us, in our wilderness
We comfort us, as we struggle to take care of one another
We comfort us, we comfort us in our wilderness
We comfort us, as we struggle with this world
Nachamu Nachamu, ami yomar Eloheichem
In two minutes we will embrace to celebrate the new year. But first, receive the embrace of this “brave and startling truth”
In 1939, with evil afoot in the world, a five-year-old boy from a Reform Jewish family in Brooklyn was frightened. Danger overseas felt close. He squinted at the horizon, and was sure he saw tiny figures of people in Europe, shoving and dueling with swords as they did in his comic books. Then Carl Sagan opened a book about stars, visited the futuristic World’s Fair, and lost himself in the Hayden Planetarium. Lifting his eyes, he was both awed and comforted by the grandeur of the universe. He described this as his “religious experience.”
About half a century later, Sagan directed NASA to snap a picture of earth from space, and became his generation’s Elijah. The image of that pale blue dot captured humanity’s shared reality and interconnectedness, our humbling smallness and our awesome responsibility. Sagan’s urging us to care more deeply for one another, to cherish and preserve our home, inspired these words by Maya Angelou, adapted from her poem, “A Brave and Startling Truth,” which lift us into 5780—
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet,
traveling through casual space,
past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns,
to a destination where all signs tell us
it is possible and imperative
that we learn a brave and startling truth.
And when we come to it, to the day of peacemaking,
when we release our fingers from fists of hostility
and allow the pure air to cool our palms,
when we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
and childhood dreams are not kicked awake
by nightmares of abuse
When we come to it, then we will confess
that not the Pyramids, nor the Grand Canyon, nor the Danube,
these are not the only wonders of the world.
When we come to it,
we, this people on this mote of matter,
in whose mouths abide cankerous words
which challenge our very existence,
yet out of those same mouths
come songs of such exquisite sweetness
that the heart falters in its labor
and the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet,
whose hands can strike with such abandon
that in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living,
yet those same hands can touch
with such healing, irresistible tenderness,
out of such chaos, of such contradiction
we learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
we, this people, on this wayward, floating body
created on this earth, of this earth,
have the power to fashion for this earth,
a climate where every person can live freely
without sanctimonious piety, without crippling fear.
When we come to it,
we must confess
that we are the possible,
we are the miraculous,
the true wonder of this world.
That is when, and only when,
we come to it.