I heard the teaching that a person who gives charity to a poor person receives six blessings, and someone who offers consolation receives eleven blessings but had no idea how the Talmud arrived at these numbers. Nor did I understand why consolation almost doubles the blessings of charity itself. I also wasn't quite sure what consolation could be offered that would make someone of unfortunate circumstances feel whole again.
I found the answer to my first question in the Talmud itself. Basically, the rabbis took the bulk of chapter 58 of Isaiah and ran it through their somewhat unusual methods of exegesis and came up with this categorization. Let's take a look at the passages of Talmud where these texts appear:
"One who gives a peruta (a nominal amount) to a poor person receives six blessings, as it is written 'Is it not to share your bread with the hungry that you shall bring the poor that are cast out into your house? When you see the naked that you cover him?' (Isaiah 58:7) 'Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your health shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call and the Lord shall answer; you shall cry and He shall say, 'Here I am'" (Isaiah 58:8-9).
This is a stunning expression of causation. Isaiah understands the altruistic impulse as natural, as our human purpose. When we share bread and our homes and cloth those who lack means, as one verse suggests, the six blessings of the next two verses will ensue. These small acts will bring light and health, righteousness and glory. God will answer us in our time of need if we are attuned to the needs of others. God himself says "hineni," as it were, to us when we are present in the lives of those who need us most. It would seem that from the point of view of social justice and kindness, it doesn't get better than this. But it actually does.
This is how the Talmud continues:
"And whoever consoles a poor person with words receives eleven blessings, as it is stated: 'And if you draw out your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be as the noonday. And the Lord shall guide you continually, and satisfy your thirst in drought...And they that shall be of you shall build the old waste places, you shall raise up the foundations of many generations,'" (Isaiah 58-10-12).
In this depiction, the giver is not offering bread but words to the afflicted soul, discovering what ails the person with these emotional needs and touching that person deeply. There are many forms of poverty. In addition to the previous blessings, we add light, the continual presence of God, the redemption of ruins, and the gift of legacy. Generations that follow will be inspired by this example and follow it.
Maimonides and other medieval commentators on this page of Talmud believe that this teaches that even one who cannot give money, should offer words of consolation and not feel that this gift is less worthy. They also derive the way charity should be given. When a person gives a charitable gift, he or she should do so pleasantly. If one gives it with anger or begrudgingly, he loses the merit he gained, even if it is a large sum. This is codified in Jewish law (Maimonides, "Laws of Giving to the Poor" 10:4-5, Shulkhan Arukh Y.D. 249:3-4).
The capacity to go outside ourselves and sympathize, commiserate, and give solace to one who is suffering cannot be bought with money. Food and clothing take care of immediate needs, but the validation and compassion that comes with consolation can linger for decades. We hang our humanity on small kindnesses. These are days where consolation is necessary. Many of us are angry or confused or dejected. We need consolation, and we need to offer it to others, especially those who are not like us.
A few pages later in the Talmud, Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua, was ill and fainted. His father asked him what he saw in his near-death state: "I saw an inverted world. Those above were below and those below were above." His father's response: "You have seen a clear world."
When our world order turns upside down, it is hard to find balance. But sometimes a word of consolation lifts us up above the fray and creates order out of chaos and deeper wisdom and understanding.