Comforting the Afflicted

Sermon delivered July 23, 2010, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

As a child, whenever I was upset, I would call my grandmother. She knew the right thing to say to comfort me. She always understood what was bothering me. She showered me with her love, unconditional love, cheering me up at times of sadness.

The calendar tells us that, this week, the Jewish people are in need of comfort. On Tuesday, the Hebrew date was the 9th of the month of Av. On that day, about 2600 years ago, the Babylonians destroyed the first great Temple in Jerusalem. Some will think it silly that we still need solace on the anniversary of a disaster that befell our people more than two and a half millennia ago. But we are a people who cherish our history, and our Rabbis have ordained this season for us each year. For seven weeks, from now until Rosh Hashanah, we will offer comforting readings from the Bible every Saturday morning. Each week, the Haftarah will be a passage from the latter part of the book of Isaiah, the prophet who consoled our people in the 6th Century B.C.E., after they had been conquered.

Being conquered wasn’t so unusual in the ancient Near East. It happened all the time. One kingdom would dispossess another. Inevitably, the victors would burn the temples of the vanquished. People assumed that the gods of the conquerors must be stronger and more powerful than the gods of the defeated. The kingdom that had been destroyed would cease to exist. The people would blend in with those who had overtaken them. They would begin to worship the presumably stronger gods who had overcome them.

The Children of Israel were different. When the Babylonians destroyed our Temple, they carted our ancestors off to exile in Babylon. There, our people were expected to begin worshiping Babylonian gods and to join in building the glory of the nation that had just conquered them. But they refused. Instead, they went to Babylon; and, as we’re taught, they “lay down and wept for Zion.” They mourned the loss of Jerusalem and the Temple.

The ancient Israelites were in pain. They could think of no way to worship God in a foreign land. You see, in those days, there were no synagogues and people didn’t often pray at home. Instead, they served God in the one Temple in Jerusalem, and that Temple was no more. The people were forlorn, because they imagined that the worship of the one true God might be gone forever.

God saw their pain, and God answered with the words of a prophet. God sent Isaiah to disabuse the people of the notion that the Babylonian gods were more powerful than the one God of Israel. Instead, the destruction of the Temple was an act of God, Isaiah announced, because the people had angered God. But just like parents who ground their children, God would not stay mad. The most important part of Isaiah’s prophecy is the proclamation of God’s unconditional love. Mindful of the divine devotion spread upon them, the Children of Israel remained faithful. A few decades later, the Babylonians too were conquered, and the Israelites returned to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and to serve God there.

Today, so many people in this world are afflicted. So many people need comfort.

Poverty and starvation, disease and war plague literally billions of God’s children around the globe.

In our own nation, millions of Americans are out of work, some for so long that they have lost hope.

Human hearts are torn asunder by the breaking of bones and the rending of marriages. Violence of every kind and unhappiness from every source bring despair to so many of our brothers and sisters.

Can we find comfort? Can we, like our ancestors in Babylon, feel the warm embrace of a God who loves us, no matter what? How shall today’s afflicted find comfort?

Let us find comfort in the loving embrace of a community that cares. Let us find comfort at Temple Beth-El.

In the last two years, while our nation has been gripped by economic difficulties, most synagogues have lost members. That’s understandable. People facing financial difficulty have to make hard choices. For many, that means a decision to stop paying synagogue dues, to drop out of the congregation. At Temple Beth-El, we have simply refused to accept resignations on the basis of financial trouble. The visionary and compassionate lay leaders of this congregation made a decision that few would. Some might have predicted financial ruin for the Temple, but that hasn’t come, though the money remains a challenge. More importantly, our membership has actually grown during the financial downturn and our Temple’s activity has blossomed.

Now more than ever, people need what the synagogue has to offer.

Now, more than ever, people need to come together on a weekly basis, surrounded by men and women and children joined in common purpose. We gather to worship, to remind ourselves that the one true God cares for us, that we are never alone, no matter how bleak times may seem.

Now, more than ever, we need to study our tradition, to read the ancient texts of Judaism. There, we learn how our ancestors overcame trials much greater than anything we face today. In Torah, we learn how God expects us to reach out to one another. We may find the greatest comfort when we serve the needs of others.

Not long ago, I was talking with a woman in our congregation who has been sorely afflicted. Karen, not her real name, has more illnesses than Job. She cannot walk. She is unable to work. With difficulty, she makes ends meet on meager disability payments. But Karen has not lost hope.

Karen is a nurse. For a long time, she worked through the pain, but that became physically impossible. Searching, she found a place to volunteer a few hours a week, providing community nursing to children in need. Serving others and being around the children have brought Karen the meaning she used to find in working full time.

Karen has placed bird feeders in her back yard. She’s not the only one with bird feeders, of course; but, for whatever reason, hundreds of hummingbirds feed at her home every single day. Karen revels in the hummingbirds. Even in her affliction, Karen has found not only comfort but happiness, serving others and marveling at God’s creation.

As I talked with Karen, I was impressed – no, amazed – by her ability to find life’s goodness amidst her many difficulties. She told me that she prays regularly, and that she has a deep faith in God. Karen doesn’t think of God as a great Being, but rather as a spiritual Source of help. She feels the presence of God inside her when she works with the children, and she experiences God’s love in the hummingbirds who visit her daily. God’s unconditional love is manifest in our lives in ways big and small, if we will only see God there.

My grandmother, who brought me comfort as a child, died six years ago at the age of 96. In many ways, though, she is still with me. She had a hobby – a talent, really – she crocheted beautiful, warm blankets. She made a few for me, and I have them in my home. Today, when I need comfort, I can no longer call my grandmother on the telephone. But I can still cover myself in her afghans and feel the warmth of her embrace.

Let us pray for all of God’s children who are afflicted this night. Let us reach out to one another – in our congregation, throughout our community, across our nation and around the world – providing care for our fellow human beings. Let us ever look up and see the hummingbirds or the hand-crafted blankets or whatever the personal symbols that bring us joy. Then, may we find God there. Then, may all who are afflicted find comfort.