The scene is all too familiar. The husband of a friend (let’s say) has died — suddenly, from a heart attack — and you are arriving to make a shiva call, wondering what to say when you get inside.
Some scenarios are worse. It might be a son or daughter who dies, in a car accident perhaps, and you are about to visit the grieving family. It is the Jewish thing to do, and you’ve done it before. But you wonder again: “What will I say? What comfort can I offer?”
This is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort. It began after the defeat by Rome and the destruction of the Second Temple, and we generally treat it as a time of national disaster. But it was equally personal: soldiers died in battle, families’ homes were burned by marauding soldiers, there was widespread famine. People made shiva calls then too — and asked: “How can I comfort someone whose father never came home? Whose daughter was raped and killed by enemy soldiers?”
This is the time of year when we are instructed on tragedy and trauma, when we remember again that every day of life is a gift, a tenuous extension of the day before. Why should human life even occur in this remote outpost of the universe that just “happens” to have the right gaseous makeup and sufficient evolution to lead to you and me? Then too, instead of reading this, you could be one of the two million children reported by the UN as enslaved for sex around the world or running for your life in Syria, Sudan, Yemen, or a dozen other states where life is perilously tenuous. “All flesh is grass,” says this week’s haftara. “All its goodness like flowers of a field. Grass withers and flowers fade.”
So you exit your car, and wonder, “What can I say to comfort?” Again, the haftara has anticipated your inner dialogue. “One voice cries out, `Speak!’ Another asks, `What is there to say?’”
Then comes the answer. “Comfort,” God says. “Speak tenderly.” The Hebrew phrase is “Speak to the heart,” that is (say our commentators), “words that are accepted by the heart.”
But lacking something profound to say does not mean that you should settle for small talk. A loving embrace, a heartfelt look, some fond memories of the person who died, and a few short sentences that mean, “I love you, I’m sorry, it’s awful. I don’t understand either, but I am here with you in your moment of grief” — that is the comfort we have to offer. As Jewish wisdom puts it, “Words spoken from the heart enter the heart.”
“Do not reason with people when their deceased lie before them,” advise the rabbis. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit. You can enter the next shiva home knowing that having been through Shabbat Nachamu, you are positively prophetic in your power to comfort. Step confidently through the doorway and “speak tenderly.” What comes from your heart will go directly into theirs.