The Sabbath after Tisha B’Av, the date commemorating the destruction of the 1st Temple and all other calamities in Judaism (it happened this past Sunday), is known as “Shabbat Nachamu,” the “Shabbat of consolation.” This name is based on the famous prophecy which we read as the Haftarah on this Shabbat, which begins with the words, “Nachamu Nachamu Ami” – “Console, console My nation.” But why should we be consoled? What reason is there for comfort? The calamity which we mourned on Tisha B’Av has yet to be resolved. We are still in exile, and the Third Temple has not yet been rebuilt. Why are we to feel consolation, just because Tisha B’Av is over?
One answer to this question comes from the beginning of our Torah portion this week, Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) which our Sages specifically instituted to be read on the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. The textbegins with Moses’s pleas to God that he be allowed to enter the Land of Israel. According to midrashic sources, we learn that Moses recited 515 prayers, at which point God told him to stop praying. It seems that God wanted Moses to recite this specific number of prayers. Why?
One of the tragedies that the rabbis believe was connected as a result of the Temple’s destruction is described in the third chapter of the Scroll of Lamentations, the special scroll read on Tisha B’Av. We read, “You covered Yourself with a cloud, so that prayer cannot pass.” (3:44) According to the Scroll of Lamentations, at the time of the destruction, God made an invisible “cloud” which blocked the heavens from receiving our prayers. This was, indeed, a terrible tragedy. Prayer is not just a means of attaining that which we need and want. This is far from being the primary purpose of prayer. The primary purpose of prayer is to connect us to the Divine Presence.
In our Jewish tradition, when we pray, we connect to God. We build a relationship with God. At the time of the destruction, God decided to no longer be in a relationship with us, and so God broke this connection by blocking our prayers. This marked one of the gravest tragedies of the destruction.
The rabbis then address this by teaching us that Moses prophetically foresaw this calamity, and he acted to help us, to restore for us this ability to connect to God through prayer. The Gematria (numerical value) of the word “Tefilah” is 515. Moses prayed 515 prayers, according to the rabbis, was for our sake, to reaffirm the power of prayer when it would be taken from us. It is in Moses’s merit, because of his prayers, that we were given anew the opportunity of prayer which had been taken away at the time of the destruction. Thanks to Moses’s prayers, we are able to maintain our connection to God even in the darkest of times.
The prayers found in this week’s portion are the greatest possible source of consolation for us – because they have assured our continued ability to build a relationship with God, under any and all circumstances. Each and every time we recite the Shema -“Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One,” we are reaffirming our beliefs and our obligations to both God and each other. In essence, we renew the commitment to teach our children and affirm ourselves, both Jewish beliefs and practices. As Judith Plaskow suggests, “despite the fractured, scattered, and conflicted nature of our experience, there is a unity that embraces and contains our diversity and that connects all things to each other.” We can also console one another for we are truly together as one people.