When I was 21 I lost a close friend to leukaemia.
Heidi was just 19; she was vibrant, super-intelligent, and possessed an extraordinary appetite for Torah study and intellectual life. A runner-up in the Israel World Bible Quiz and a brilliant university student, she had an insatiable curiosity, sharp intensity and capacity to connect to others with ease. She fought her illness with a formidable and determined courage, composure, and with the support of her singular family and a wide group of friends. Her death left us, her friends, reeling. We were too young to be touched by premature death, unsure how to navigate the road of mourning, rebuild the journey towards meaning.
I’m writing about Heidi today because we have just begun the Seven Weeks of Consolation following the historical devastation of the Ninth of Av and the three dark weeks recalling the bitter Jewish past. This Shabbat (28 July) is called the Sabbath of Comfort (Shabbat Nachamu). A few months after Heidi’s death, I was at her family synagogue for Shabbat and her Dad, Joe, read the storied words of Isaiah (40:1) which is the Haftarah or prophetic reading of this Shabbat: “Nachamu, nachamu Ami, Be comforted, be comforted my people, says your God.”
These are poignant words at any time, but on this Shabbat, they tore at my heart, not only because I was longing for consolation, but because of the way he read these anguished words.
Joe was a formidable and determined East European Jew. We were all in awe of his incisive intellect, his Talmudic and general knowledge, as well as his vigourous eloquence. He was a student and admirer of the famed Rabbi Aaron Kotler.
Joe was a man of the mind; objective, rational, not given to the softness of emotion. Tears were not in his book. Yet on this Shabbat, when he read the prophetic words, you felt the depth of his loss, the unbearable ache of the words, and the plangent resonance of the traditional tune. It was on this Shabbat, I began to get a deeper understanding of loss, the power of consolation, and the balm of words and melodies.
The prophet Isaiah understood too well how fragile life is: “All flesh is grass, and all its kindness, like the flower of the field… The grass will wither, the flower will fade… But the word of our God shall stand for ever“ (Isaiah 40:6 -8). He also recognised how potent giving comfort is: God Himself gathers us up “like a shepherd would gather lambs in his arms, and carry them close to him…”(40:11). It’s not only God who gives comfort, but one of the gifts of being human is our capacity to reach out and support someone in pain. In fact, the word nachamu can be translated as a call to all of us to give comfort to others, to one another. We need the tender touch of others to heal us.
Why does Jewish tradition have only three weeks of devastation, but seven of consolation? Loss and injury often happen very quickly, but healing and mending are usually slow and considered. Just think how long it can take to heal wounds after a devastating accident or betrayal. This is evident in our patriarch Jacob’s life and how he needed time to both get over the perceived loss of his son Joseph, and then to accept he was actually alive.
We need to bear this in mind when we carelessly talk about others or cause harm to their names and reputations. A casual word can kill a lifetime of achievement; it can take years and years to rebuild after a business collapse. The seven weeks are ultimately about the power to reconstruct, to build again, and to hope after devastation and destruction. It’s ingrained in the Jewish psyche, it makes us the people of the long vision. We break a glass at a wedding as a reminder of loss, but also as a gesture of optimism, a belief that good relationships can mend the broken shards and heal the wounded word and world.
In a week in which the world has experienced the most frightening fires and heat waves, which UN Secretary General has declared that we are now facing not a warming, but a boiling planet, a week of devastation and loss across much of Europe and America, we need to hold on to hope and believe that we can still make things better and check the impending climate disaster.
And so, I still carry Heidi in my heart, and in my life‘s work. She is a reminder to me of the unbearable losses of life as well as the unbelievable ways we can cope, renew, rebuild and re-invigorate.