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When Words Betray

I’ve always found words cathartic. When I have been going through the worst periods in my life, I’ve written for myself, for others, for the future, for the past. Words function as a means of imposing order on chaos, of creating structure and permanency in the face of our ephemeral and fragile existence. In the immediate aftermath of last shabbat I wrote an article on the TOI, I’m not sure the enormity of it all had yet marked me. In recent days many of my dear and loyal students have asked me to write, to offer some hope. It’s what I do, it’s what I did. Until I couldn’t.

When God created the world from תהו ובהו – total chaos, he does so through speech. Speech allows us to translate our subjective, parochial, individual experience into objective, universal categories of understanding. But at this moment, to find order in the unfathomable tragedy seems like a betrayal. There is no order. There is nothing but silence. “When Israel is in exile, so is the word,” says the Zohar. No, we are not in exile, but at this moment it feels like we have been exiled from everything we knew, everything we believed, every narrative we had built.

I have been struggling to find words. To find language. To find catharsis through language. But I remain mute. Paralysed by silence, paralysed by fear, paralysed by pain. It comes as no surprise that for two decades following the Holocaust there was a deafening theological silence.

Everything we have experienced and are continuing to experience defies the order and catharsis that speech offers. Our world, our narrative, our stability, our security, our core has been ripped apart at the seams. To sew it back together and impose a degree of order and structure on madness feels like a betrayal to the victims. But not to, feels like a betrayal to the people of Israel to our history, to our enduring spirit.

Elie Wiesel wrote constantly about the dialectical tension between the mandate to remember and be a witness and the impossibility of expressing the unfathomable.

There are a unique few at this present moment that have been able to use words and language to offer a semblance of order and hope. I am in awe of these voices. But many of the writings, at least for me, feel glib and facile.

I pray that one day I will once again have the strength, sensitivity, insight and wisdom to write. I pray I will be able to weave a fresh narrative of hope and order from this bleeding wound. For now, I can only remain silent, muted by the immeasurable task of gathering the broken shards of hope from a cataclysmic shattering that is still vibrating from one aftershock to the other. So, all I can do at this moment is to share the haunting words of someone who managed to write for the dead, for the living, for those who went as smoke into oblivion and for those that survived but were forever changed: A man who personally experienced the worst horrors of mankind: Elie Wiesel from his essay: “Why I write”. (I urge you to read till the end).

“If I say that the writer in me wants to remain loyal, it is because it is true. This sentiment moves all survivors; they owe nothing to anyone; but everything to the dead. I owe them my roots and my memory. I am duty-bound to serve as their emissary, transmitting the history of their disappearance, even if it disturbs, even if it brings pain. Not to do so would be to betray them, and thus myself. And since I am incapable of communicating their cry by shouting, I simply look at them. I see them and I write. While writing, I question them as I question myself. I believe I have said it before, elsewhere. I write to understand as much as to be understood. Will I succeed one day? Wherever one starts, one reaches darkness. God? He remains the God of darkness. Man? The source of darkness. The killers’ derision, their victims’ tears, the onlookers’’ indifference, their complicity and complacency—the divine role in all that I do not understand. A million children massacred—I shall never understand. Jewish children—they haunt my writings. I see them again and again. I shall always see them. Hounded, humiliated, bent like the old men who surround them as though to protect them, unable to do so. They are thirsty, the children, and there is no one to give them water. They are hungry, but there is no one to give them a crust of bread. They are afraid, and there is no one to reassure them. They walk in the middle of the roads, the vagabonds. They are on the way to the station, and they will never return. In sealed cards, without air or food, they travel toward another world. They guess where they are going, they know it, and they keep silent. Tense, thoughtful, they listen to the wind, the call of death in the distance. All these children, these old people, I see them. I never stop seeing them. I belong to them. But they, to whom do they belong? People tend to think that a murderer weakens when facing a child. The child reawakens the killer’s lost humanity. The killer can no longer kill the child before him, the child inside him. But with us it happened differently. Our Jewish children had no effect upon the killers. Nor upon the world. Nor upon God. I think of them, I think of their childhood. Their childhood is a small Jewish town, and this town is no more. They frighten me; they reflect an image of myself, one that I pursue and run from at the same time—the image of a Jewish adolescent who knew no fear, except the fear of God, whose faith was whole, comforting, and not marked by anxiety. No, I do not understand. And if I write, it is to warn the readers that he will not understand either. “You will not understand, you will not understand,” were the words heard everywhere during the reign of night. I can only echo them. You, who never lived under a sky of blood, will never know what it was like. Even if you read all the books ever written, even if you listen to all the testimonies ever given, you will remain on this side of the wall, you will view the agony and death of a people from afar, through the screen of a memory that is not your own.

When man, in his grief, falls silent, Goethe says, then God gives him the strength to sing his sorrows. From that moment on, he may no longer choose not to sing, whether his song is heard or not. What matters is to struggle against silence with words, or through another form of silence. What matters is to gather a smile here and there, a tear here and there, a word here and there, and thus justify the faith placed in you, a long time ago, by so many victims. Why do I write? To wrench those victims from oblivion. To help the dead vanquish death.”

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