I almost didn't write a drash this week. It has been a long time since I've written something, anything, to present here. Two and a half months, in fact. I have good reasons. I was sick for a while, and I was studying, and I was traveling for school, and then we had family services outdoors, for which a drash is not well suited.
But mostly I've found myself speechless of late. Words have failed me. They have not come when called. I get up in the morning and I read my paper and I am speechless. Each day, I read news that feels unsettlingly apocalyptic. News that speaks of the unraveling of democracy, the dismantling of decency. I look to columnists and commentators, grateful that there are other people pulling a thought and a sentence together. But me? I am left speechless.
Sometimes I think speechlessness is the only legitimate response. Because the insistent brokenness, the insults to neighbors and to humanity, the callousness exhibited day by day, tweet by tweet, immigrant body by immigrant body, are so great that no other response will serve. Words themselves would trivialize. Words would normalize. Words are unequal to the magnitude of the trouble.
Sometimes the only words I can find are words of mockery, and in that I know I'm in good company. But mockery is thin comfort, bitter and fleeting. If only not! If only our clever mockery could make change, could heal! What a very different world we'd be living in.
So I remain, so often these days, speechless.
Speechlessness might well be the most natural response to catastrophic times. Tonight is Tisha B'Av (even though we only mark it tomorrow night because of Shabbat). This is the day in which we mourn for fallen Jerusalem, for the destroyed Temple, for our Exile. The day in Jerusalem, and later over the centuries in Spain and Germany and Poland that our world collapsed around us.
On Tisha B'Av, we read Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, maybe better translated as the book of wonderment, of incomprehension. Three of its five chapters begin with the word eichah, "how" – "how can it be"? "How can this be happening?" Just as we might mutter today.
And then there is silence:
י יֵשְׁבוּ לָאָרֶץ יִדְּמוּ זִקְנֵי בַת־צִיּוֹן הֶעֱלוּ עָפָר עַל־רֹאשָׁם
"The elders of Jerusalem sit on the ground in silence, pouring ashes on their heads." (Eichah 2:10). The world after the calamity is post-lingual. There is wailing and stunned silence.
Not similarly silent this week, however, is Torah.
Moshe in particular. Because this the week we open the Book of Deuteronomy, called in Hebrew Devarim, which means "words". "These are the words," it begins, "that Moshe spoke to the people."
And words there are. More than 20,000 of them out of Moshe's mouth. This is his great farewell speech. Moshe, whom our tradition describes as slow of speech, is at no loss for words in this, his final stage time before the people. He is full of history, reminding the Children of Israel of every step they've taken in the Wilderness. He is full of law, reiterating every commandment issued by God. He is full of advice, and of warning, and of personal musings full of praise and disappointment, in the form of 43 lines of poetry that burst out of him toward the book's end.
Eyleh hadvarim, the Deuteronomy begins. "These are the words." And many chapters later, we get Moshe's last words to the people: "Hearken to these words. . . for this word is your life."
How strange that this Torah portion, with its explosion of speech, with its emphasis on the power of speech, should be placed right here at Tisha B'Av where we sit, speechless in our grief, wordless in the ruins.
The Izhbitzer Rebbe in the 1800s spoke to this irony. He said that Tisha B'Av is the moment we turn from God's words to Moshe's words because God's direct speech ended with the destruction of the Temple. But – and here's the hopeful part – God, and God's speech, now, after the destruction, becomes permanently embedded within the people. In the wake of catastrophe, we no longer find Divine message in some central, idealized place, but in us. In our words and in our actions.
And maybe, I would add, in our silence too. At least some of the time. I came of age as an activist in an era when our slogan was Silence=Death. For us, during those hard hard years, silence was the same as inaction which was the same as complicity.
But silence can be more than that, more than absence of something else.
Psalm 65 launches with a famous and curious line:
לְךָ֤ דֻֽמִיָּ֬ה תְהִלָּ֓ה אֱלֹ֘הִ֥ים
Lecha dumiyah tehilah Elohim. "To you, God, silence is praise." Dumiyah, the same root we see in Lamentations describing the silence of the elders. Commenting on this verse, Rashi remarks that the greatness of the Divine could not be contained to anything finite, and that includes words. And so God's praise had to slop over into the silence as well.
This is a beautiful idea to me. That even the silence of our grief and our sorrow has a holiness to it. It is a silence in which the Shechinah dwells.
Holy silence, to be holy, must be held that way. It can't be a silence of indifference. Or a silence of capitulation. It can't be a silence that is simply an absence.
Instead a holy silence is full to overflowing, even if what it is full of is calm. Holy silence can be many things. A silence of consideration, intention-setting, praise. A determined silence, a silence of resolve. In this moment, it might be a collecting of grief, a mustering of will. A silence of discernment and preparation. Of reflection and breath. Breath. Breath above all. Holy silence is a silence that precedes – will give way to – speech and action, to shouts, prayer or song.
So when I wake up and find myself speechless, I will try to no longer feel defeated. I will turn my shocked silence into holy silence. And know that it will, soon, inevitably, give way.
Eyleh hadvarim. These are the words.