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The refusal to be comforted sounded more than once in Jewish history. The prophet Jeremiah heard it in a later age: “This is what the Lord says: A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted….
“This is what the Lord says: Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears for your work will be rewarded, says the Lord. They will return from the land of the enemy … Your children will return to their own land” (Jeremiah 31:15-17).
Why was Jeremiah sure that Jews would return? Because they refused to be comforted – meaning, they refused to give up hope.
So it was during the Babylonian exile, in one of the great expressions of all time of the refusal to be comforted: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered Zion … If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget [its skill]. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy” (Psalms 137:1-5).
It is said that Napoleon, passing a synagogue on Tisha B’Av, heard the sounds of lamentation. “What are the Jews crying for?” he asked one of his officers. “For Jerusalem,” he replied. “How long ago did they lose it?” “More than 1,700 hundred years ago.” “A people who can mourn for Jerusalem so long, will one day have it restored to them,” he is reputed to have replied.
Jews are the people who refuse to be comforted because they never give up hope. Jacob did eventually see Joseph again. Rachel’s children did return to the land. Jerusalem is once again the Jewish home. All the evidence may suggest otherwise: it may seem to signify irretrievable loss, a decree of history that cannot be overturned, a fate that must be accepted. Jews never believed the evidence because they had something else to set against it – a faith, a trust, an unbreakable hope that proved stronger than historical inevitability. It is not too much to say that Jewish survival was sustained in that hope.
Where did it come from? From a simple – or perhaps not so simply – phrase in the life of Jacob. He refused to be comforted. And so – while we live in a world still scarred by violence, poverty and injustice – must we.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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