Torah: Nighttime journey from anxiety to hope mirrors power of faith


Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Isaiah 40:1-26

Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.” These words of Psalm 6 capture the stress and sleeplessness of worry and anxiety. In the darkness of night, and the stillness of the world, our worries and fears assert themselves. I awake at 2 or 3 in the morning. In that stillness, in that quiet, my mind whirls and I toss and turn in my bed. Sleep runs away. The Zohar teaches that the first half of the night is the time of worldly judgment. The powers of nations and economy predominate. At such moments, our worries about the future, about our jobs and mortgages and families, are felt loud and clear.

We are faint; our bones in agony. And it is in such a moment that Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, commemorated last Sunday, comes upon us. This day of memory recalls all the trials and persecutions throughout Jewish history. It is a day of fasting and sorrow as we recall all the pain that has been, and realize all the pain that may yet be. And though much of it was wreaked upon innocents, blameless of this pain, some was self-inflicted. And as we remember our own private loss and pain, we notice the senseless violence, the persecution and baseless hatred, that still inflames the world. So much of the loss, the pain, could be avoided. And yet, people choose hatred over love, and violence even where peace would gain them more.

Yet hope can never be lost. Our tradition praises God who redeems. Judaism imagines a world in which hope exists. It is not boundless optimism, but rather the sure knowledge that people of good will have the power to change the realities of our lives. There is hope, and we connect with that hope through the power of compassion.

The mystics would arise at the half-way point of the night to begin studying. The Zohar teaches that the transition from judgment to mercy, from worry to compassion, begins at that moment. Study at that hour invites God’s compassion to be felt upon the world, and the process of healing begins.

Six days after Tisha B’Av comes the Shabbat of Consolation. Isaiah offers these words: “Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and declare to her:  Her term of service is over.”  After our awareness of loss and suffering, we remind ourselves also of consolation and healing. The burdens we carry are great; we are weary. And yet the Siddur asks us to say each morning, even those mornings after too-long nights: Praised is God who grants strength to the weary. There is a resilience, an inner resource, that has still to be uncovered. And compassion is the location in which those words of comfort can be found.

Over the next few weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, each Shabbat we remind ourselves of comfort and consolation. We recall that there is hope and strength still to be found. Though the night is dark, and our anxieties immense, the dawn will come. That profound comfort can console us even in the depth of the night, offering a soothing compassion that allows us to return to sleep. Sleep is the great gift that enables us to heal, to restore ourselves physically and mentally, to remember and reconnect with joy. And so in discovering compassion, we discover rest, sleep and healing.

In these weeks, I invite all of us to uncover our own power of compassion. This season is an ideal time to think of our work and family relationships. Who could use an act of compassion from us?  Who would be comforted by words of consolation and love?  And as we share these loving acts, as we develop our own capacity for compassion and consolation, perhaps we will develop compassion for ourselves. The agony in the bones can give way to our own inner quality of chesed, of deep abiding love. And then we can sleep again, comforted because we have comforted others. And perhaps, in that way, we can invite something other, something of God, to comfort and console us as well.

Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].