Studying about the 6th day of Elul in 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays by Simon Jacobson, I am struck, once again, at the brilliance of the structure of Jewish time.
Jacobson reminds me that this first week of Elul is the fourth week in the Seven Weeks of Consolation that began after Tisha B’Av. Jacobson teaches the midrashic explanation of the progression of these seven weeks as a dialogue between us and God.
Week One: God sends the prophets to console the people after the destruction of the temple. (“‘Be conforted, be comforted, my people,’ says your God” – Isaiah 40:1)
Week Two: The people ask why God is sending comfort through the prophets instead of comforting them directly. (“And Zion said: God has forsaken me; my God has forgotten me” – Isaiah 49:14)
Week Three: The prophets tell God that the people are not comforted. (“O afflicted, storm-tossed, unconsoled one…” – Isaiah 54:11)
Week Four: (this first week of Elul) God begins comforting the people directly. (“It is I, I am The One Who comforts you…” – Isaiah 51:12)
Week Five: God’s consolation intensifies (“Sing out, O barren one, who has not given birth, break out into glad song and be jubilant…” – Isaiah 54:1)
Week Six: God’s consolation becomes more powerful and profound. (“Arise! Shine! For your light has arrived and the glory of God has shined upon you.” – Isaiah 60:1)
Week Seven: The people rejoice in God’s consolation (“I will rejoice intensely with God, my soul shall exult with my God…” – Isaiah 61:10)
Jacobson teaches that the reason God does not console the people from the beginning is to remind us that we have the power to console one another. “One vulnerable person can console another,” Jacobson writes, “It is a great gift that one person can give to antoher.”
And once we are consoled, we are then ready for the renewal and rebirth that comes with the New Year.
Jewish time, the wisdom of the rabbis in structuring it in such a way and framed by such texts – it is nothing short of brilliant.
Most people are not easily comforted. Most painful situations are ones that require comfort over time. Someone who tells you they’re sorry for what you’re going through but does not check in to see how you are doing a week or a month later has probably failed to comfort you. I know that I have a hard time accepting comfort and that I am not always as generous as I could be in seeking out opportunities to offer comfort to others. It is on my list of things to work on in the coming year.
At the same time, I am immensely grateful for those who know how to comfort me, those who remember to check in on me, and those who allow me to comfort them in their times of suffering. Jacobson is so right, it is a gift we give each other. I will endeavor to remember that. I will continue to teach it in his name.
Pulling ourselves out of grief takes time. The period of mourning that preceded Tisha B’Av, where we allow ourselves to descend into sorrow – that’s only a few weeks. It takes longer to come through to the other side; to comfort and be comforted. Seven weeks, with the hope of renewal at the end of it – a light shining, beckoning us to work through the pain and believe in our ability to work for a better next time around.
I’ll be honest. Today I had a hard time feeling optimistic about the future. Luckily, it’s only Week Four. I have a few more weeks to get my head in the game; to find strength in the comfort of friends, family and community, and to find strength in my ability to comfort others in turn.
It is Week Four.
Jacobson says that I can expect God to begin comforting me directly.
It is Shabbat.
If I can open myself to experiencing God’s comfort, what better day to start?