Comfort the afflicted.
At first glance, it might be hard to tell what Mother Jones, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Clare Luce and Gene Kelly have in common—a labor activist, a high ranking church official, the first female ambassador, and well- Gene Kelly— where could the disparate circles of that venn diagram overlap?
The answer is one that may surprise you:
Each of those individuals have been given credit for, or misquoted a line once said by a lesser known writer by the name of Finley Peter Dunne.
Dunne was a humorist and writer from Chicago, best known for his “Mr. Dooley” sketches. The fictional Mr. Dooley expounded upon political and social issues of the day from his South SideChicago Irishpub and he spoke with the thick verbiage and accent of an Irish immigrant from County Roscommon.
Dunne’s political acumen and slick sense of humor won over then President Theodore Roosevelt, though he was often the target of Mr. Dooley’s barbs. In fact, Dunne’s sketches became so popular and such a litmus test of public opinion that they were read each week at White House cabinet meetings.
And here, is where the lesser known Finley Peter Dunne crosses paths in history with Mother Jones, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Clare Booth Luce: in one of his “Mr. Dooley” sketches, we encounter the drunken Irishman at a bar, saying:
“Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward”.
Mrs. Roosevelt has done more good deeds on a bigger scale for a longer time than any woman who ever appeared on the public scene. No woman has ever so comforted the distressed — or so distressed the comfortable” —
The Archbishop of Canterbury called it the goal of religion., social activist “Mother” Mary Jones was once quoted as saying “My business is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”, and even as a line delivered by Gene Kelly in the film “Inherit the Wind”. The idea of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” is so powerful, because it names the very thin line on which justice is balanced.
As a motto for social activism, public service, and religious leadership, it holds a great deal of wisdom. It’s also a timely reminder, as we encounter this particular moment on the Jewish calendar.
This past week, Jews around the world commemorated Tisha b’Av: the 9 of Av, a day of mourning and desolation marking the destruction of the Temple, mourning the rampant hatred in our tradition. On Tisha B’Av we read the book of Lamentations— known in Hebrew as Eicha.
Eicha: how the lonely city sits destroyed.
We don’t need to look back into history for ancient desolations:
Eicha—how do we sleep at night, knowing that children suffer alone in detention camps at our border?
Eicha— how can it be that in 2019, we are again wrestling with vitriolic anti-semitism?
Eicha— how can we look to Israel as a beacon of hope, if they would bend so easily
We call tonight Shabbat Nachamu, out of an ancient need to seek consolation. This Shabbat, which follows Tisha B’Av, marks the beginning of a period of comfort and consolation within the Torah and Haftarot readings for the next 7 weeks.
Our tradition directs us to the prophet Isaiah on these particular Shabbatot.
With the week that was in our rearview mirror, it is easy to feel as though the prophet is speaking directly to us in the Haftarah for this Shabbat, as he says “nachamu, nachamu, Ami…” Comfort- comfort my people”.
We hear these words each year, and often- hear them as a call of the prophet directly to the people; whispering comforting words in their desolate ears.
But a closer look at the text reveals an important distinction.
Isaiah speaks “nachamu nachamu ami” not directly to the broken hearted people Israel, but rather to the other prophets, and leaders—Nachamu, nachamu, is an exhortation to work! An address to those in positions of leadership to speak words of hope.
Nachamu, nachamu— these are instructions! The prophet Isaiah was speaking into the hearts of those with power, to bring comfort to a desolate people— appealing to their morality and sense of justice to bring consolation.
Some weeks, more than others bring us to Shabbat with precisely that need: a need for others to speak words of comfort to us.
What happens when comfort is hard to find? When affliction reigns? When rather than speaking words of comfort, it is our leaders themselves who speak words of aggression and chaos?
A Shabbat dedicated to comfort— Shabbat as a balm for weary souls– sounds better than ever. Our world is afflicted. More than ever, we hear the call of “Nachamu, nachamu ami” and wonder who might heed those instructions.
And so I’m brought back to the Irish brogue that first spoke out from pages of newsprint over a century ago: on this Shabbat Nachamu, I’m thinking about what it means to truly comfort th’ afflicted, and afflict th’ comfortable. I think of the litany of affliction in our world, and the heartless leadership that would bring only more hatred and pain, rather than comfort to our country.
And I can’t help but wonder: is comfort what really need? What good is comfort when the affliction is so wide, and so deep, and so real? The voice of the prophet calls out, but what if we are living in a time where there is none to hear it?
I am reminded of the story of the rabbi and the soap maker— the cynical soap maker asks the rabbi, What good is Torah? With so much hatred and strife in the world, what’s the point of that “Good Book”?
Pointing to a child nearby covered in muck and mud— the rabbi replies, “well what good is soap? There are still dirty children in the world?”
Of course, the soap makers reply is that soap is only good if you use it— and that wise, apocryphal rabbi looks into his eyes and says “So too with Torah—it’s only good if you use it, if you apply it’s words to the world around you.”
Nachamu, nachamu, ami. Comfort, comfort, my people.
Comfort is only of use to us if we apply it— not only to ourselves, but to the world around us. If we consider comfort a renewable resource— available to all in full abundance.
Certainly, there is affliction.
We can grieve as we sit in the rubble of our cities, but we also rise up and say nachamu nachamu, we will bring comfort in the form of solidarity and a demand that
Commentators and midrashists throughout time have wrestled with the doubling of the word “nachamu” in our haftarah. Why not just “Nachamu Ami”? One possibility is that the doubling emphasizes how crucial this call for comfort is. Another idea is that there should be a double portion of comfort offered to a people who have doubly suffered.
I want to suggest another possibility:
Nachamu, nachamu is a call to each of us: a reminder that in order to provide comfort to those in need, we must also find ways of changing their circumstances.
On this Shabbat Nachamu, I pray that those in positions of leadership in our national life will heed the double call of “nachamu, nachamu” to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable in whatever language they are able to hear it. But the call cannot end there— may each of us give and take comfort. May we hear sweet words that they may be a balm to our souls, and may we speak those words to others who have not yet heard them. May we rededicate ourselves to building a world safe from affliction, strife, war and bloodshed.