Rabbi Epstein’s drasha, Shabbat Nachamu 2014



Shabbat shalom!

There are so many thoughts running through my head this Shabbat that I hardly know where to start.

It has been another tiring and yet uplifting week but, as has been the case for over 2 months now, the emotions are felt simultaneously and the spirit wavers, confused. Elated one moment and dejected the next, in an incessant wave of highs and lows. The process itself is exhausting, and it is only now, as I contemplate the week, that I can isolate moments of pride and joy amidst the emotional dust and rubble.

Dust and rubble was connected to the start of the week, as we moved towards the most challenging 25 hour period of our calendar – Tisha B’Av.

Although similar to Yom Kippur in the “cessation from eating and drinking” category, the days could not be more contrasted.

Yom Kippur is a day of pure holiness and a celebration of our closeness and love of G-d. A day on which G-d himself declares that merely experiencing the day, with no further activity on our part, contributes to our forgiveness and salvation.

“For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the  LORD.”

We feel God’s presence, whether in the nuance of the prayer, the abundance of white in the synagogue or through the tunes themselves. A majesty envelops us and we are uplifted by it.

Tisha B’Av could not be more diametrically contrasted to this sentiment if we tried.

The covers are taken off the table and the ark. We sit on low benches or on the floor. We wear non-leather footwear. We don’t put on our tefillin or our tallit for shacharit. We are sitting shiva for the Temples and all the other calamities that have befallen our people throughout our history.

The prayers feel difficult. We struggle through the harsh and seemingly interminable language of Lamentations and the Kinnot – the dirges that poetically and masterfully encapsulate our bitter experiences with their exquisite allusions to biblical quotations throughout the tragic books of the prophets: Isaiah and Jeremiah, and beyond.

There is a palpable sense of loss for something that we, nor our parents, nor our great-great grandparents ever experienced. And yet we mourn.

Because more than being connected through people, we are inevitably and inexorably connected through time.

We do not mourn the historical loss of the temples. We mourn the actual deficiency of Temple and Priestly activity in our present day lives.

And as we move through Tisha B’Av itself, we feel the dragging of the day, the drudgery of the hours and the difficulty of emotion.

While reading the Book of Eicha last Monday night for the assembled congregation, people joined in and read along with me. I commented to Ilana that I have never experienced anything like it. It was a form of consolation and support in grief, amidst the ashes of the burning Temple, it enveloped me like a warm blanket. In over 30 years that I can remember reciting, or being present at the recitation of

Eicha, this was the first time that I had read it aloud with the congregation.

This warmth and closeness of community was special for the people who were present and my prayer is that we all get to experience that warmth of community at some point every year.

The day was punctuated by excellent shiurim by Daniel Anderson on the Bar Kochba Revolt, and by Rabbi Dr. Rafi Zarum, Dean of the London School of Jewish Studies, who linked Tisha B’Av with the difficulties and seeming futility of much of the First World War, whose centenary fell very close to the day itself.

And as we left Tisha B’Av behind, we began the slow, but focused rehabilitation from our spiritual and emotional depression towards today – Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of Consolation.

G-d Himself, through the beautiful and comforting words of Isaiah, reaches out to us through the rousing and reassuring words in today’s Haftorah – נַחֲמוּ†נַחֲמוּ¨†עַמִּי– Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my People.

After describing some of the most difficult and heart-rending scenes in our history, and the most dejected scenarios of destruction, the prophet, in a moment of absolute calm and poise, relieves us of our misery by offering solace, haven and comfort.

“Bid Jerusalem take heart, and proclaim unto her, that her time of service is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places a plain;

And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the L-RD hath spoken it.”

“Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye, My People”

In fact, these words always remind me of the story of the Rabbi who has just taken up his new Rabbinic Post in Dublin, Ireland, and gets up to deliver his address on this auspicious Shabbat – Shabbat Nachamu.

He begins with the aforementioned opening of the Haftorah and declares in full voice to the attendant congregation “Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye, my people.”

And at the end of Musaf, the Rabbi is congratulated on his stirring words and the congregation and the Rabbi take leave of each other and make their respective ways home.

At precisely four o’clock that same Shabbat afternoon, there is a loud knock at the door, and the Rabbi is woken from his precious Shabbat afternoon Schlouf, to what sounds like a low hum of voices.

He opens the door in his pyjamas and dressing gown, and to his shock and horror, the entire 200-strong congregation are standing outside his front door.

The president, the treasurer and the wardens of the synagogue are at the front and the young Rabbi, in a moment of total consternation, turns to the president – a proud, red-headed gentleman with eyes of piercing emerald green – and says to him,“Moishe! – What are you doing here?” To which Moishe replies, in full voice – in his unmistakable Gaelic lilt: “But Rabbi, I don’t understand! In your speech this morning, you called out to us and said COME FOR TEA, COME FOR TEA, MY PEOPLE! IT’S FOUR O’CLOCK……AND WE’VE COME FOR OUR TEA!

But, to be perfectly honest, it was at 10:00 on Wednesday morning that I was lifted out of the darkness and despair of Tisha B’Av.

And it happened, seemingly, in the most unlikely of places. And yet, I cannot think of, or imagine, a more God like, more angelic or more profound place that I could have been at that very moment. I was standing in the Purification Room at Bushey Cemetery. The room where the “Tahara” – the ritual preparation of the body for a Jewish burial – takes place. I must admit that I had been nervous about this moment for some time, but the room was serene, and the work was carried out by members of our own Chevra Kadisha, the oldest and longest surviving of the “chevras” – the Guilds that our people in Eastern Europe established in every sphere of Jewish community life, to look after those around them, at every moment – every simcha and every sadness – as part of their communal involvement and pride.

As the five men – some of whom are with us in this sanctuary today – carefully, respectfully and diligently went about their work, I felt myself in the presence of angels – emissaries of G-d himself, lovingly and beautifully enrobing the body in delicate shrouds of white and adorning the body with a Kittel – the white robe that is worn on Yom Kippur by officiants and congregants alike – and a tallit.

In that very moment, I felt an overwhelming sense of love for them, and I understood the meaning of the word Nachamu.

Nechama – Comfort and Consolation.

The ashes and destruction of the Temple were still fresh in our consciousness as a People, on this morning of the Tenth of Av, mirroring the enormous sense of loss being felt by the family of the deceased, just hours before the burial.

And yet, at this time, as we move towards Shabbat Nachamu, God reaches out to us with his outstretched arms and cradles us in an embrace of comfort and reassurance.

Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami.

And, in parallel, the men of our own community’s Chevra Kadisha reach into the family’s private grief and, through their quiet, unassuming, and intensely modest and unspoken labour of love, cradled this man and prepared him for his serene and peaceful journey to his final resting place. To have the care of a community while you are living is a great gift. But to have the care of a community, and a dedicated group of everyday people, continuing to care for you after you have passed, is the greatest Chesed – the greatest lovingkindness – that exists in our faith.

In the coming months, we will be looking to expand and rejuvenate the Chevra Kadisha of Cockfosters and N Southgate, one of the most respected Chevra Kadishas in the United Synagogue. Many of the members have been involved in this act of ultimate love for over 25 years, and it is time to pass the mantle to the next generation through a period of transition and transmission, so that we can continue to look after those around us both during our lifetimes and beyond.

Please feel free to speak to me, in complete confidence, to find out more about what is involved. It is not as complicated, or as difficult, or as uncomfortable as it may seem, and although having the reputation of being shrouded in absolute secrecy, it is only shrouded in overwhelming modesty.

We want to be loved. We want to be cared for. And we want to be able to care for others. And when all is said and done, we may not have the answers for the all the questions we are asking, but there are many times in life when, in actuality, we are not looking for answers.

We are looking for the strength and the support and the encouragement to be able to live with the questions and the doubts and the concerns that we have.

And the God given opportunity to be able to share those with those around us, with love and with patience and with compassion and with understanding….

….these are the greatest forms of consolation for Temples Lost. This is our Nechama. This is our comfort.

Our strength as a community is measured by how well we look after each other.

And as we begin our march from these weeks of difficulty, through the Seven Weeks of Consolation – the שבעה†דנחמתא– to the ultimate declaration of our purpose on this earth, on Rosh Hashanah, we can draw strength and comfort from the knowledge that we are in this life together.

That we struggle together, but that we persevere together and ultimately we survive and thrive together.

And our truest form of Consolation is the feeling that we are never, ever alone.

As we have mourned for Jerusalem together, so shall we celebrate a peaceful Jerusalem and a peaceful world in the future, with our G-d, of whom we request peace multiple times a day:

עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל

ואמרו אמן