I must admit that until the ads for “My Pillow,” I did not know that there was such a thing as “The National Sleep Foundation.” Did you? When I was a kid, Serta made mattresses and I really have no clue where pillows came from, and that was pretty much it. Now, mattresses cost more than cars did back then, and everyone has an opinion about which is the best one. I guess we want to be comfortable and are willing to spend big bucks to achieve that level of comfort. I’ve been traveling a bit this month, and, I must say, it is certainly comforting to come home and crawl into my own bed..
It’s made me think about comfort and what we find comforting and how much we long for comfort in our troubled world and the challenges of our lives. In the Jewish calendar, we have transited from the 3 weeks of rebuke which precede Tisha B’Av, to the 7 weeks of comfort and consolation which follow. I’m intrigued by the fact that there are twice as many weeks devoted to comfort as there were to rebuke, and I think that speaks profoundly of the human condition. It is so easy to get wrapped up in judgment- judgment of ourselves, judgment of each other. It is so hard to assert kindness and gentleness, and yet that is what we crave the most. Where do you need comfort in your life right now? Can we find comfort in the fact that we have food and clothing, that we can, in the words of this week’s parsha, “Eat, be satisfied, and offer blessings of thanks?” What else do we find comforting?
Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. The Temple was destroyed, according to the rabbis, because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred. We mourned the loss of connection to our spiritual home, the place that exemplified the comfort that comes from connection to God, to holiness, to each other. Rabbi Brad Artson writes that, “For our ancestors the Temple was not merely a place of worship and pomp, it was a symbol of wholeness. There it was possible to fulfill the desire of our Creator completely, to become one with God. . .By its very structure the Temple stood beyond time, offering the iron-clad assurances that God dwelt there, that all was well.”
After the humbling challenge of confronting our failings, it’s no wonder that we need a number of weeks to focus on comfort, to acknowledge that, despite the reality of our imperfections, we can continue to grow and we are worthy of love. Have you heard of Amma, the Indian spiritual leader known as “the hugging saint?” She has spent a lifetime hugging people, who will wait in line for hours to experience her embrace. Sometimes that’s what we most want and need- a loving hug from someone who wants nothing from us but only to offer the comfort of resting in the arms of someone who offers love without expectations or judgment.
We have experienced the lowest point- destruction and loss of our hopes and dreams, our vision of perfection, as experienced in the loss of the Holy Temple. And we learn that, nevertheless, we can do teshuvah- no wonder many people consider Tisha B’Av to be the beginning of the High Holiday season.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, accompanied by R. Joshua, once passed Jerusalem [after its fall]. While looking upon the city and the ruins of the Temple, R. Joshua exclaimed, ‘Woe unto us, that the holy place is destroyed which atoned for our sins!’ R. Yochanan replied, ‘My son, do not grieve on this account, for we have another atonement for our sins; it is chesed, loving acts of kindness.” Parshat Ekev offers this guide (Dt. 10:12)- “Be in awe, walk in God’s ways, love and serve God, do mitzvot- and love the stranger.” The Temple was destroyed because of gratuitous hatred. Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, suggested that it will be rebuilt when we offer each other ahavat chinam- generous love.
Take comfort. Yes, we suffer. Yes, our bodies and minds break down now and then. Yes, we age and it gets harder to move and to remember things that once seemed so important. Yes, we don’t live up to our own highest ideals, and, yes, we are disappointed when others fail us as well.
But understanding that life itself is a great gift and that even death is simply a part of life, we can cultivate gratitude. We can recognize the Source of all Being as our God. We can find strength in our camaraderie and the sharing of our challenges and pains along the journey of our lives. We can come to understand that the very fact that we are unites us to one another and to the eternal source of all being. And all of this is, indeed, comforting.
 Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 4