The joy of comfort

The joy of comfort

Recently, I saw the new Pixar movie “Inside Out,” an animated film for children with a lesson for adults.  Most of the film takes place inside the brain of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who is moving with her family across the country. We get to see inside her brain as she makes this move, an event, of course, fraught with trauma. The cartoon personified emotions in the headquarters of her brain are called Anger, Fear, Disgust, Sadness and Joy, who acts as the team captain. Joy is not sure what purpose Sadness serves, as she mostly mopes around touching memory balls accidently. She monitors Sadness’ every move. Through a series of adventures, Joy discovers that Sadness offers empathy, reflection and grief — integral parts of the growing emotional intelligence of an 11-year-old girl. “Inside Out” is a story about change coming from the most unexpected places, and I will most definitely add it to my list of favorite teshuva (transformation) movies including “Groundhog Day,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “As Good As It Gets.”

Last Shabbat, we commemorated the event of our great exile from the land of Israel (586 B.C.E.) with the Haftarah reading from the first chapter of Isaiah recalling “a desolate land overthrown by strangers” (Is. 1:7), its inhabitants forced out like the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah. This Shabbat, we turn to Isaiah Chapter 40 for our Haftarah and hear the consoling words of Nachamu, nachamu ami (“Comfort, oh, comfort My people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). Each week, for seven weeks, we will receive another Haftarah of consolation, until we reach Rosh Hashanah. The doubling of “nahamu, nahamu” (comfort, comfort) indicates an emotional process from sadness to gladness that is found in other Jewish holiday celebrations, most notably from Yom Kippur to Sukkot or from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Haatzmaut. In order to receive comfort, we must do the hard work of grieving first. One “nachamu” is for remembering the hard times and the lessons learned; the second “nachamu” is to embrace the hope that grows out of this moment of transformation. The doubling represents a necessary separation that occurs in consolation. Consolation arrives not as a solution to our sadness but as a process of crying out and being heard across the abyss of the frightening unknown. When we acknowledge our wounds and that God affirms our pain, we can continue to cross the bridge to the second consolation of joy.

This is essentially what happens in “Inside Out,” where the character of Joy discovers Sadness as a partner with a purpose. Riley experiences the sadness of separation from her old home to joyfully embrace the possibilities of her new world. Memories filled with joy of her younger self are tinged with sadness. She has to grieve the person she used to be. Sadness has a purpose.

We see the world as two separate realities from sadness to gladness, but from God’s perspective they are one. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we read the “shema” for the first time in the Torah reading for this week, the first Shabbat after the catastrophe of Exile. Moses teaches the people that there is a unity of reality in the painful and joyous nexus we encounter in life. There is only one God. There is only one Shepherd. Isaiah recalls “the Shepherd who will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young” (Isaiah 40:11). This is the same Shepherd of Psalm 23 who beats His sheep with His rod and leads them with His staff to bring them safely through the valley of the shadow of death. We don’t deny that pain comes from a separate hostile force. God creates both lightness and dark. We turn our pain into meaning and the process is completed in being consoled. In other words, we need twice “nachamu” to prepare for the spiritual renewal of New Year ahead.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is rabbi of New Light Congregation in Squirrel Hill. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.