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Nachamu, Nachamu - All is Well

(I presented this to my Board of Trustees in August 2008.)

That there is a Torah portion for this coming Shabbat is nothing remarkable; every Shabbat has a corresponding Torah portion. And it’s also not especially notable that the Haftarah this Shabbat equally relates to the Torah portion and to the calendar; after building up to Tisha b’Av with a series of Haftarot that bawl out and chastise the Israelites, the Haftarah for the Shabbat immediately following Tisha b’Av, known as Shabbat Nachamu, the first words of the Haftarah, does the opposite: the Israelites need to be comforted by and reassured of God’s love. The disaster has taken place and it is now time for communal healing. The people need to hear God’s reassuring words – all will be well, all will be made whole again. God is watching, helping, healing – all we have to do is believe and work hard to make things right again.

For me personally what is remarkable and noteworthy is that Nachamu was the first Haftarah that I ever chanted, in the summer of 1989. I was a student of Cantor Donald Roberts, one of my predecessors, and as he taught me Haftarah cantillation in preparation for my taking exams hopefully exempting me from the year of study in Israel that was required of all cantorial, rabbinic and education students at HUC, he chose mid summer for my Haftarah debut, probably figuring that if I choked, crashed and burned, there would not be a huge crowd to witness my disgrace. I did none of those things – those had been reserved for my first public Torah chanting a few months before – and since that time, Nachamu has held a very special place in my heart and mind.

I was – like any teenage (or adult) bar or bat mitzvah student – a newbie. It wasn’t easy; reading Hebrew, much less chanting it, was a new phenomenon for me. Because I was so well prepared, though, I wasn’t afraid. I knew the haftarah blessings and the haftarah itself inside and out.

I often share the following self-disclosure anecdote with my students: within the third paragraph of the blessings after the Haftarah is the word “v’-la-a-lu-vat.” It took hours for me to master the word. I wrote it repeatedly – like a Jewish Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson scribbling on the blackboard “I will not (this or that)” – on blank pages, in my Plaut Chumash commentary, anyplace that had space for my written repetitions. Hard work, but I nailed it.

When I tell my students that few of us are born with PhD’s in Bar/Bat Mitzvah, I really mean it. I have first-hand experience with the phenomenon of watching adults break down in tears in public upon being asked to participate in Jewish worship; God knows I came mighty close during that first sad Torah leyning experience. What I learned from the Haftarah experience was the Jewish equivalent of the joke about getting to Carnegie Hall. How do you get there? Practice, practice, practice. I am sure that some of you are shaking your heads as you think to yourselves, “yeah, right – but she’s the expert, and I’m not.” Perhaps not.

Think about this: many of you have been invited over time to take part in Shabbat or High Holy Day worship. And I have counseled some of you as you worked through your fear, doubt, panic, anxiety and frustration. And you and I have rejoiced upon your public success after repeated frustrated attempts in the privacy of my study. You accomplished something extraordinary, you reached for the stars, and you achieved your goals.

Our sages teach us “L’foom tzara agra,” the reward is according to the effort (also known as “no pain, no gain”). Nachamu is my first hand experience with this truth, and I offer my experience to you, hoping that for all of us, ‘l’foom tzara agra’ becomes our watchword.

Nachamu brings us comfort and healing after the storm of Tisha b’Av, reminding us that all will be will. As we challenge ourselves tonight to both find solutions to our difficulties and the best in our Jewish family, let Nachamu – and my personal experience – bring the comfort and relief of knowing that – with some effort, hard work and determination – there is nothing that we cannot accomplish together and under God’s watchful eye.

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