Excerpted from In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks by Dr. Erica Brown, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books
There are times when words are on fire, and there are times when pain is so great that there are no words. We hear a survivor tell us stories of the crematoria. A natural disaster takes thousands of lives. Genocide goes unstopped. An illness takes over a human life and reduces it to indignities. These experiences are described with words, but never fully captured by them: words are a betrayal. Silence, at such times, seems like the only authentic response to tragedy. The Kotzker Rebbe once said, “The whole world isn’t worth uttering a sigh for.” The sigh is a non-word that signifies disgust or resignation or despair. Tisha B’Av is a day of sighs. By the end of the day, we have created a mountain of such sighs.
Many kinot actually incorporate the sound of the sigh with onomatopoeic flourish. In Kina 32, “Etzbe’otai Shafelu,” we read:
Wasted by sin, hands wretched in pain.
Oh! What has become of us?”
“Oh! What has become of us!” is the refrain, the repetition of words when words lose all meaning.
We experience this tension of language in Kina 9, “Eikha Tifarti”:
Rise! Knock! Scream! Be not silent!
Even pray in the voice of a ghost from the grave.
I have suffered so that I am almost mute…
We move from the audible, powerful pounding on a door, screaming to be let in, to the still, small voice of a ghost from the grave. Suffering makes us mute; it moves us incrementally from a world of sound to a world of silence.
We see this process in Eikha itself. In chapter 2, the distraught Jeremiah says, “Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches; pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord” (Lam. 2:19). Our loudest yelling loses its potency and turns into the water of tears. Our emotional range moves from anger to denial, stubborn rage to impotence, critical debate to irrational jostling with God.
A friend who lost a child once told me that for nights on end she would scream until her voice collapsed and with it, her soul became faint. She would complete this exercise of pain in a puddle of tears. Listening to her suffering, I understood that she used her voice as a sacrifice on the altar of the human condition. No amount of crying would bring her son back, but if she lost her voice, she would somehow echo the universe of loss she now occupied.
As a youth, Rabbi Soloveitchik once asked his father why so many questions in the Talmud remain unanswered. His father explained to him that God wishes to teach us a lesson that “not every event and happening
can be comprehended by the limited mortal mind.” The Rav internalized this lesson when he wrote: “With all his broken heart and unanswered questions, the mortal must yet exclaim, ‘Who is like unto Thee, O Lord, among the mighty!’”
As Tisha B’Av closes, we find ourselves worn down by the litany of sadness. We have spent a day reciting thousands of words that perhaps can best be summed up with a sigh and a cry and a pounding on the door, all the non-verbal acts that ask “why” more loudly than words. And then, if we are honest, we retreat into the silence, the collapse of the soul when the words have spent their course. In that silence we stand as if to hear the silence of embers floating in a Jerusalem morning the day after the Temple was reduced to ash, and we look again for God.