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What Does “Nachem” Mean?

Posted July 22, 2010

The haftorah for this Shabbat begins with the famous words, “Nachamu, nachamu ami” — “Comfort, oh comfort my people.” The use of the word nachem to mean comfort or consolation is very familiar to us. It is the first word in the additional prayer that we recite in mincha on Tisha Bav and it is the central theme of the blessing that we give the mourner in a house of mourning, “Ha-Makom ye-nachem etchem.” However, this same word seems to have a different usage in the Torah. In the episode of the Golden Calf, God wants to destroy the entire nation. Moshe pleads with God to relent from his anger and the Torah reports, “Va-yinachem Hashem al ha-ra’ah asher diber la-asot le-amo” — “God relented regarding the evil that He declared that He would do to his people.” How did the word for comfort come to be used to refer to God’s relenting on the punishment?

I believe that the answer can found in a final usage of the word nachem. At the end of the Book of Breishit, Jacob dies and the brothers are afraid that Joseph will finally retaliate for the fact that his brothers sold him to Egypt. However, Joseph did not retaliate. Rather, the Torah says, “Va-yinachem otam va-yedaber al libam” — “Joseph reconciled with them, speaking kindly to them.” Here, the same word, nachem, is used to mean reconcile and in this meaning lays the secret to understanding the significance of this word in the different contexts in which it is used. The choice of the word nachem to express God’s relenting regarding his punishment following the sin of the Golden Calf reflects the fact that the act of God’s relenting is based on the ability to reconcile with man’s inclination to sin and to appreciate that this inclination cannot lead to the destruction of the entire nation.

Finally, the use of the word nachem to mean comfort or consolation reflects the idea that the experience of being comforted following a tragedy is based on the ability to reconcile oneself to the tragedy. It is only through reconciliation with what has transpired that one is able to deal with the tragedy, whether it is a personal or national one. As the period of nechamah begins this Shabbat, let us all reconcile ourselves to those things that we cannot change and work together to improve those things that can be changed.

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