After Newtown, A Community Of Comforters

After Newtown, A Community Of Comforters

“There is no revenge for the blood of a little child — such a revenge has yet to be devised by Satan,” wrote Hayyim Nahman Bialik about a very different massacre over a century ago. In lieu of vengeance, Bialik calls for a cosmic response: “Let the blood pierce through the abyss!”

As the children and teachers of Newtown are taken to their final rest this week, one can feel the blood piercing through that abyss — the abyss of human cruelty, the abyss of our inability to fully protect our children, the abyss of society’s obligation to its weakest links.

Many of the darkest challenges of American society have been exposed through this massacre, but one often-overlooked challenge is American culture’s relationship with death and offering comfort. Newtown might present a moment of change for this culture.

At Newtown last Sunday night, President Obama charged the nation with a new role:

“You are not alone in your grief Newtown. Our world, too, has been torn apart. All across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight. And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide. Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it.”

The “Comforter in Chief” enlisted us in the work of consolation. As we as a nation struggle to answer this call, we would be wise to take some cues from Jewish sources, renowned for their unique approach to mourning and loss, and the emphasis given to the role of the comforters. Indeed the Talmud describes the work of comforting as the most sacred of acts:

“Rabbi Hama taught: What is meant by the passage, “You shall walk after the Lord, your God” (Deut. 13:5)? Is it possible for a human being to “walk after” the Divine Presence, about which it is written: “The Lord, your God, is a consuming fire”? (Deut. 4:24)  Rather what it means is: Follow the actions of the Holy Blessed One. Just as God comforted the grieving … so you too — comfort the grieving.” (Talmud Bavli Sotah 14b)

If there is an action that feels like walking after consuming fire, it is the act of entering the home of a bereaved family with the charge of offering consolation. Indeed, the art of comforting has become a lost art: many refrain from other people’s suffering, as if their loss is contagious. Perhaps standing by their abyss threatens to rip open an abyss of our own.

I’d suggest this hesitancy stems from an expectation to “fix their problem” or “heal their wounds” — an impossibly high bar. America’s culture of the “denial of death” and addiction to heroism (as Ernest Becker described it) makes us want to “solve” their crisis, instead of simply help them soak up the pain. True comforting, on the other hand, is a much more modest act, eminently human and yet touching upon the divine.

Psychologists Haim Omer and Nahi Alon suggest that the very framework of comforting is to be distinguished from a framework of “control” and “healing.” Healing assumes the ability to become whole again, to regain control. Comfort, on the other hand, is not found in regaining wholeness, but in accepting a “tragic reframe” — that the world is not perfect and wholeness is not achievable. Where there is life, there is distress and lack of full control. In lieu of complete healing, comforting works towards acceptance and the creation of communities of compassion and relief.

This way of reframing the issue, which might sound “un-American” in its anti-heroism, is fitting for our times and specifically to the tenure of President Obama. In the recent campaign, Obama positioned himself as the “imperfect president,” promising to “push forward in a tough world” rather than offering a vision of victory and control. This might seem too dark for some. I personally find it to be courageously modest, humanely optimistic, and a useful frame for working in a complex world.

Alongside this model of subdued comfort, we still hold on to our messianic dreams. When raising a mourner from shiva, the following verse is said: “Death will be vanquished forever, and the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” (Isaiah 25:8) Messianic in its focus, this verse speaks to the day when the “tragic reframe” can be relinquished, and all plagues will be brought to an end. The time is not nigh, but we continue to work towards it nonetheless, every day.

Rabbi Mishael Zion is co-director of the Bronfman Fellowships and author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices.” He blogs regularly at Text and the City. This piece is written in memory of the 20 children slain in the Newtown massacre. 

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