Beyond Words: Yom Kippur Yizkor 5782

גרשתי מלבי
את כל המלים
כי פנה יום
 - ואמי נרדמה
ואמי תישן
עד בוא המשיח
I have banished from my heart 
all words,
For the day is turning 
And my mother will slumber- 
And my mother will sleep 
until the messiah comes.
- Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky

What can we say in the face of unspeakable loss? When words cannot say enough, or cannot contain what needs to be said? When words feel futile. When we feel like we have banished or purged all the words we have left from our heart.

These words from the Hebrew poet Zelda came to me throughout the summer as I sat with the task of preparing for the holidays this year. 

After over a year of the pandemic, natural disasters, and of attempts to undermine and actively overturn democracy….what else is there to say? 

We live in a world where there is so much pressure to have something to say. With the pace of the news cycle and constant churn of social media, the pressure to immediately react is there all the time. If we don’t fill the space with words, have we even experienced it? 

So much has been said, so much ink spilled already. We have poured it out in the face of so much grief and destruction. 

As of the time of this writing, there have been 660,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States alone. We have all grappled with the upheaval of the pandemic in different ways. We have as watched relatives, friends, and colleagues struggle, or perhaps we ourselves struggle, with the virus, and as many succumbed to their illness. Months later many are still struggling with long-term health effects that are still not fully understood. The ramifications of this pandemic echo everywhere, and will continue for years to come. There is almost no aspect of life that has not been touched in some way. 

In addition to the pandemic, which was already a part of our lives when we observed the holidays last year, we have witnessed record-breaking heat and drought, wildfires, and in our own corner of the world, flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida just a couple of weeks ago, which we are still recovering from. And this Yom Kippur comes just days after the 20th anniversary of 9/11, which for many of us still feels fresh in our minds. We remember the people whose lives were lost that day and are still grieving the assault on our sense of safety. It is excruciatingly painful to honor the memory of that day while also witnessing the exit of US military forces from Afghanistan, and the Taliban have re-established control and we wonder if everything since 2001 has accomplished nothing. 

And those are just the events that have captured national and international attention. There are so many more, around the world and in our own lives over the past year that we have in mind this Yom Kippur. What words can contain all that? 

And meanwhile, we come here on Yom Kippur and we’re confronted with so many words. 

What would be most meaningful at this moment? When can we just breathe and say that it’s enough? 

In the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, the narrator also grapples with the weight of words: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (Kohelet 12:12) (Although that didn’t seem to stop him from writing a book of his own.)

But Kohelet also says, in perhaps the most famous passage from the book, “There is a time for everything under the sun…a time for speaking, and a time for silence. 

Our tradition acknowledges the place for both. There are times when we must speak; and there are other times, where Jewish teaching makes room/carves out space for silence. 

We learn this from examples in the Hebrew Bible. When Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed after offering strange fire, the Torah tells us that Aaron was silent (Leviticus 10:3) The medieval commentator Abarbanel understands this to mean that Aaron’s heart had turned to stone, or that his soul had left him. In the face of the loss of his children, there are no words that can express his grief. 

In the book Job, when Job’s friends come to comfort him. When they saw him in his disheveled state, they tore their garments, and sat on the ground with him for seven days, and none spoke a word to him because they could see how great his grief was (Job 2:11-13).

Our tradition learns from these Biblical examples that being without words sometimes is acceptable, and perhaps might be the only decent thing to do. 

When we come to offer comfort to a person in mourning, the tradition teaches us that we should wait to speak until the mourner speaks to us. If the person in mourning chooses not to speak at all, then we honor this by sitting with them in silence. 

Silence though seems to imply absence, a negative space. What these texts propose isn’t necessarily silence, but wordlessness. The absence of words does not necessarily mean a total lack of content. There are other ways, in the absence of words, to experience, respond, and communicate. And when words escape us, we can still create meaningful wordlessness. 

We can experience meaningful wordlessness  through the energy that is created when sitting in the presence of others. It could be a gesture or comforting touch. It could be humming a wordless niggun or melody. It could be the cry of the shofar,or  kol demamah dakah – the still, small voice that we sing about in our Unetane Tokef prayer.

The Talmud relates a teaching of Rabbi Elazar, that speaks to the moments when words fail us.  “Rabbi Elazar says: Since the day the Temple was destroyed the heavenly gates of prayer were locked, and prayer is not accepted as it once was. But although the gates of prayer were locked, the gates of tears were not locked.” 

When we’re not sure what there is to say, when we have run out of words, when we’re struggling to find the right ones, or when we can’t bring ourselves to say the words in front of us, our tears are enough. Our silent tears allow us to transcend language and express what is held in our hearts. 

In this hour of remembering, whether with words, intention, or tears, may our prayers open the gates.