Jewish Words of Comfort
Judaism helps provide the words to comfort mourners.
Subliminally, yet another level of meaning is implied: Others are genuinely able to share their pain.
More subtly tucked into the folds of the phrase "the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem" is the teaching that the mourners' past grievous losses are connected with their present loss. Indeed, within our lifetime, we suffer and grieve for many losses: a loved one, a dear friend, a business relationship, a livelihood, or our prestige. Or we may mourn a ravaged community, perhaps a sacred city like Jerusalem, or a devoutly held idea like Zion. Many never resolve old grief; horrific incidents of the past may cast their long shadow over a new trauma. Even night has its shadows.
Grieving should be seen as an ongoing process of acknowledging cumulative misfortune rather than only a recent disaster. An entire collection of past losses thus insinuates itself surreptitiously into the fresh grief, though most mourners regard the new loss as a single monolithic burden.
In English, "grief" has no singular, no plural, only a comprehensive sense. Similarly, the Hebrew word for grief, "avel," is a comprehensive term. So, too, is "hefsed" (loss)—we speak of hefsed merubah (great loss) and hefsed mu'at (minor loss), but not in the singular or plural as such. On the other hand, "nehamah" (consolation) has a ready plural—"tanhumim" (many consolations).
Thus, centuries of Jewish usage, expressed in the common forms of daily language, shine a light on the significant contrast between accumulated grief and separate consolations. This linguistic insight into Judaism teaches two counterintuitive truths: First, all mourners, no matter how diverse their losses, share a common sadness, forming a communal net of sorrow, although each is unique. And yet a single mourner's particular experiences of grief form a personal net of troubles, shared by no one else.
Jewish tradition, in its Ashkenazic and Sephardic formulas, requires that this special Hebrew phrase be spoken because it incorporates a fundamental tenet of Judaism: We are the concerns of God, not only as unique individuals but also as one among many others who are suffering and who must always be included. In fact, an oft-repeated teaching of Judaism is that God heals us only if we first ask God to help others.
This is particularly true when we turn to God not to seek comfort for a personal loss, but for the survival of Zion and Jerusalem. That is why, when extending God's blessing to sick people, we mention "she'ar holei Yisra'el" (those others in Israel who are sick). We affirm that God is concerned not only with individuals but also with the whole community of Israel.
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