What does the Yiddish phrase Shepping Naches and Isaiah’s cry “נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם” “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your G!d”, have in common?
Both Naches and Nechama begin with the letter Nun. Just kidding. While both do begin with Nuns, this is because both words come from the same root nach (נָח), whose verb lanuach (לנוח) means to rest, relax, or be at ease.
This week is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, named after Isaiah’s words which we will read in the Haftarah of the morning Torah service. This is the first of no less than seven Shabbatot of Comfort after Tisha B’Av. The sole goal of these coming seven weeks is to soothe the souls of Israel after passing through the deepest, darkest, most destructive valley of the yearly cycle, and to raise us, step by careful step, from the lowest ebb of the dog days of summer to the highest heights of ripe autumn. Experiencing seven weeks of consolation after the pain of Tisha B’Av gives us the strength to face the new year, Rosh Hashanah, and our holiest day, Yom Kippur, in the spirit of nachat ruach (tranquility) and joy.
Shabbat Nachamu is close to my heart for two reasons. First, this Shabbat is my birthday Shabbat and so the anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah. Second because this attribute, nachat ruach, is something that I am compelled to bring to others and thus, to be candid, serves as the motivation for many of the decisions I have made in my life (which somehow frequently include helping my elders–be they family, friends, strangers–achieve some dear goal of theirs late in their lives).
But how to achieve tranquility of spirit? And hang on a second — doesn’t Naches have something to do with pride?!
In modern parlance, Naches has come to mean “having pride in one’s children”. But this is a warped and woefully inaccurate definition, in my humble opinion. Even the common phrase of having “pride and joy” falls short in this regard.
When Jewish parents Shep Naches (שעפּן נחת), they actually have peace from their children. This means that they witness their child leading a moral life, a life that is in harmony with their own teachings and values, and in keeping with Jewish tradition. It means, hopefully, that they have a peaceful relationship with their child. Another term for this is Yiddishe Naches – Jewish Naches.
The Reversed Nun…with a Tail
So let’s get to the Masorah, already. The Torah portion for Shabbat Nachamu is Vaetchanan. And let me tell you – it is chock full of otiot meshunot (unusual Hebrew letters), including Wrapped Pei’s, Praying Yuds, a giant Ayin and Dalet, and letters wearing extra crowns on their heads. But let’s force ourselves to focus on just one letter today: the Reversed Nun.
While this Nun is called “bent” or “reversed”, according to Machzor Vitry and Badei HaAron manuscripts, what is backward about these Nuns is not their whole body, but rather their tails. The Sefer Tagin (Machzor Vitry ed.) confides that the scribal tradition of the letter Nun with its “bent tail” appears 50 times in the Torah.
Other scholars describe these Nuns differently: Meiri in his Kiryas Sefer writes that they are “rounded on top and an bottom”.
This strange letter appears three times in this week’s Torah portion, on three consecutive words, within one poignant phrase:
רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד, פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר-רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ וּפֶן-יָסוּרוּ מִלְּבָבְךָ, כֹּל, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ; וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ.
“Only guard yourself, and guard your soul very much, lest you forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live; and make them known to your children and to your children’s children” (Deut. 4:9).
Our heroes for today appear in the last three Hebrew words of this quote:
לְבָנֶיךָ, וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ
“To your children and children’s children”
The reversed Nun appears thrice on variations of the same word: Ben, ben, ben. Literally: Son, son, son. More broadly: Child, child, child.
The Peirush HaRokeach refers to this otiot meshunah as the “Reversed Nun, with its foot behind it”. This description may remind us of the reversed Nuns of Numbers 10:35-36.
But as Avie Gold points out, that is unlikely, “for the reversed letters [in Numbers] are used as signs to set the passage apart from its neighbors while here they are letters of words” (Baal HaTurim Chumash, 2007, p. 1861). Gold makes a great point: while the Nuns in Numbers hang backwards and alone (poor things), here our three fellows are shoulder to shoulder with the other letters that make up these three child-ish words. Also, as we’ve already learned, our Tailed Nuns are facing forward, while the bracketed Nuns face the other way.
From all these descriptors of this Reversed Nun, the Baal HaTurim teaches something profound: “This indicates that whomever is himself a Torah scholar, and whose son and grandson are Torah scholars, then the Torah will never depart from his descendants.”
Face Forward, Reach Backward
So what we actually have here are not reversed Nuns, but rather Nuns who face forward while a part of them (their feet or tails) are directed behind them. I’ll put it a different way: Three brothers walk into the future with their focus on the past.
But isn’t walking forward while looking back a bit dangerous? You’re bound to bump into something.
That’s why the Masorah is the way it is: the Nuns themselves are ‘walking forward’ but they are connected to where they came from. They reach beyond themselves. These three sons are actually not brothers at all, rather they are three generations, like the Baal HaTurim said: Grandfather, father, son, all walking the same path through the forests of time, all carrying the same scrolls in their arms, all intending to pass on the batons to the next generation of scholars.
In a moving way, this is what Masorah is all about. If it is not passed down, it is forgotten. But mind you: this doesn’t mean it is lost forever. It seems to me that when the baton is dropped, it may be hidden, but it doesn’t disappear – a child will find a scroll under the fallen forest leaves one day, brush it off, pick it up, learn from it as they go. And if they can comprehend it, and perhaps are even lucky enough to find a teacher to help them on their journey, they’ll cherish the scroll and become the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather who repaired the break in the chain of tradition.
Oblivion and Memory
There is an unbelievable story in our tradition, told about the young king of Israel Yoshiyahu. Of him, scripture writes “And like him there was no king before him who returned to Hashem with all his heart and all his soul and with all his might in accordance with all the Torah teachings of Moshe, nor did anyone equal to him ever arise afterwards” (II Kings 23:25).
What did King Yoshiyahu do to deserve such praise?
He inherited a kingdom from his predecessors who had, tragically, done their utmost to eradicate the Torah’s influence from the Jewish people. They almost succeeded: It seems as though King Yoshiyahu had never seen a Torah Scroll before in his life.
18 years into his reign, the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) at the time, Chilkiyahu, discovered a Torah Scroll inside the crumbling, neglected Temple in Jerusalem — a scroll that had been hidden for many generations from the wicked kings. He brought the scroll to the King, who opened it right to the chapter of admonition and curses in Devarim (Deut. chapters 27 & 28. Proceed with caution, should you look it up- the curses are awful).
When the King read the verses of curses, his first real encounter with the Torah, he was so shaken that he cried out and ripped his garments out of anguish for all the years he had neglected the Torah out of ignorance.
He called out, “!עלינו להקים” “We must uphold the Torah!”, arranged an emergency meeting of the elders of Judah and Jerusalem, read to them from the Torah scroll, and spearheaded a revolution to teach the treasured wisdom of the Torah to his subjects, who had forgotten it. The King also sent out agents to search and destroy the idols that were being worshipped, instead of G!d, by the Jewish people in the land of Israel.
That which had passed out of memory and into oblivion was renewed: the Torah was given again to the Jewish people by this righteous King.
Shep Some Naches!
If you read this week’s Torah portion carefully, you might be surprised by how many times Moshe adjures the Jewish people to pass on what they have seen, experienced, and learned (everything: the trauma and the redemption, the miraculous and the mundane, the folly and the wisdom) to their children.
My Bat Mitzvah parsha contains both the 10 Commandments and the Shema. But the theme of the reading is actually focused on children, legacy, and as my dear father calls it, “Intergenerational Transfer”.
Every relationship between parent and child is different. But what sets the Jewish people apart is this intense, focused, soul-felt emphasis on Yiddishe Nachas. There’s an old joke about a Jewish mother with two grown sons, who is attending the presidential inauguration. The president being sworn in is her first son. As the ceremony is going on, she elbows the guy next to her and says with pride, “You see that son of mine about to become president? Well, his brother is a doctor!”
Yiddishe Nachas comes to parents in the moment when they realize that their children are leading meaningful lives in which they help those around them and achieve moral greatness. Nachat ruach, tranquility of spirit, is what follows that realization.
For some reason, I connect with the Backward-Forward Nun more strongly than almost any other unusual Hebrew letter (save that Wrapped Pei).
We choose every moment how to move through our lives, how to balance our individuality with our familial, communal, national, moral, and religious obligations. Sometimes we shirk obligation in order to live on our own terms, dropping the wisdom that those before us have handed us into the dirt because we want to ‘figure it out on our own’. Sometimes we hold those scrolls close.
There is a way to walk forward while looking back which is unhealthy – if it means we’re holding onto aspects of the past that, let’s be frank, we should have let go.
But if we can internalize the best lessons that our forbears have given us, and if in our lifetimes we can pick up one or two dusty scrolls, like King Yoshiyahu, which had been cast aside by someone who chose (for whatever reason) to break the chain of tradition, and if we can pass that baton on to our child or our student, then we can become part of the intergenerational transfer that Moshe first spoke about.
We can become a Nun which moves into a brighter future by connecting with the wisdom of the past. We can become bearers of Masorah. And if we succeed in this to any degree, I guarantee that we will find someone, somewhere, at some point, who is Shepping Naches for our accomplishments of repairing the Shalshelet HaDorot, that most precious Chain of Generations.
Have a Tranquil Shabbat Nachamu.
Many thanks to Ben Elterman for his guidance in crafting this post. I thank him also for writing about the Shema this week so I didn’t have to. Do yourself a favor and read some kosher Torah.
Shout out to my Brandeis bros of JFA! I can’t have Shabbat Nachamu without you.
And I must share this beautiful chain of Carlebachian musical tradition:
Nachamu Ami, Neshama Carlebach
Nachamu Ami, Shlomo Carlebach
Shabbat Nachamu Shalom!