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אין מילים: There Are No Words

This is a lightly edited text of the Shabbat drasha delivered by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot at Congregation Netivot Shalom, Parshat Noach, October 21, 2023

In those first few days as we discovered more and more about the atrocities and the horrors that Hamas terrorists and their supporters (and we know from the videos that there were civilians who crossed the breached border fence that horrible Shabbat-Simchat Torah, October 7), many of us repeated the words—that there are no words—as we spoke to friends in Israel who were burying the dead and processing all that was happening. It was what I said to my old friends Mark and Debby Ziering who lost their son, Aryeh, z”l, a 27-year-old chayal on Sunday in one of the early firefights to drive out the Hamas terrorists from the south of Israel. It’s the sense of speechlessness at the massive intelligence, military and political failure that allowed such a breach and attack to occur and not be repelled for so many hours.

And it was a horror that touched at the most sensitive and deep-seated emotions of Jewish trauma and history, for me personally, not the massacres of the Shoah, but the Jewish memory that shaped the very roots of Zionism, the Kishniev pogroms of 1903 described by Bialik in his classic poems ”Be-Ir Hahereiga” and ”Al Hashehita,” of defenseless Jews murdered and violated, the event that spurred the Second Aliyah that so shaped the foundations of the yishuv and personally led my great-grandparents to leave Russia for South America together with other Jews who were sent there as part of the Baron De-Hirsch colonies.

And the lack of words, the אין מלים, was on my mind as I opened the parsha this week and thought about a fascinating fact, which is that Noah does not utter a word that is recorded in the text from the moment he is born through the hundreds of years of his life, through the entire command from God to build the ark, through the deluge and destruction of the world and its slow recreation—from perakim six, seven, eight and the majority of nine, Noah is silent. Now, there is a strand in the tradition, especially in the Hasidic tradition, that views this silence in jaundiced terms—that Noah, in contrast to Abraham, seems indifferent to the suffering around him and does not pray on behalf of his generation, doesn’t speak to them, try to change them.

But maybe, just maybe, there is a different take on this phenomenon. Maybe Noah in his first centuries of life is simply appalled by all the evil and cruelty he sees around him; he sees the רע and the השחתה, the corruption, the violence, the cruelty and is simply overwhelmed. And he understands fully that justice must be done and God’s justice must come, and he is terrified by that, by the destruction that needs to come. He is overwhelmed by sadness and depression from the evil that he had witnessed before the flood and the cataclysm that will come to wipe away the guilty and the innocent as one—because the innocent did not speak out, because the innocent did not stop the evil, because so many turned a blind eye to what the evildoers had done to the world and the harm they had caused.

And we pivot to the end of the parsha, where instead of silence, of an absence of words, we all of a sudden have a babel of words, a tower of language. We have people all speaking, in unison, loud and clear, but here too the question emerges as to what these words are for? Are they words of healing? Words of comfort, or words of rebellion and evil?

My dear friend Rabbi Herzl Hefter in a post this week wrote:

Language plays a determining role in the evolution of civilization. It is glue which holds people together. Language can also be an instrument of strife, divisiveness and imposition of mastery through manipulation.

The two uses of language are reflected in two Hebrew words: safa and lashon. Safa literally means “lip,” while lashon means “tongue.” The distinction is significant. The great Hasidic master Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitz (1800-1854) explained that “tongue” denotes authentic expression of a person’s internal reality because it is an internal organ. The tongue, he says, is the quill of the heart. In contradistinction, the lips are on the surface of our anatomy.

The language of the “lips” is inauthentic speech which does not faithfully represent the interior thoughts and feelings of the individual. We are all familiar with the term “lip service.” A person engaging in “lip service” is using language dishonestly as an instrument of manipulation and creation of false impressions.

The word the Torah uses for language in the Tower narrative is safalip. This indicates that even though Babylonian civilization seemed united by common language and purpose, it was in fact held together artificially by external force and manipulation.

During these two weeks of immense pain and sorrow and resolve and unity we have seen words and language twisted and distorted in ways that justify evil and support injustice. Just to take two examples:

The BBC and so many news outlets continue to use terms like “militants” or “fighters” or, in parts of the Arab world, words like “members of the resistance” to describe the brutal thugs and terrorists who committed the terrible acts of October 7 against civilians. What is someone who abducts a 3-month-old baby or an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor in her wheelchair? A “fighter”? A “militant”? Or what they really are—a “terrorist” or other words not fit to utter in a beit knesset?

But you also see it in the more subtle uses of language, like the weasel words of decrying “the cycle of violence” or the language used by Ayman Odeh, a leading Palestinian Israeli member of Knesset, who wrote in a New York Times op-ed (which was moderate and even keeled in tone), but included language like this:

That Israel should take steps like …. a humanitarian exchange of prisoners to bring home all civilians held hostage, especially infants, children and older adults.

The 3-month-old baby abducted or the young kibbutznik taken hostages are “prisoners”! The people being held in Israeli jails were captured on the battlefield in the context of attacks planned on military personnel or civilians; they are “prisoners of war.” The Israelis being held captive by Hamas are not prisoners who were sentenced in a court, they are kidnapped human beings, hostages, violently wrested from their homes.

But there has also been the positive language of campaigns and advocacy on television and print by defenders of the Jewish people and Israel that we have seen, the amazing words of comfort and support that have emerged from President Joe Biden on down, that warm the heart and reflect the amazing country that we live in and the support we have in the highest corridors of power.

And the language—the lashon of tefillah, of song, of advocacy, and the written words contained in all those amazing letters that have been written by our youngest students and kids through high school and beyond, and sent to give support and encouragement and love to the soldiers of the IDF on the front line.

On Monday, Oct 8, a group of 12th graders at SAR sat down and wrote letters to IDF soldiers who were being deployed. A young man,, Josh, wrote the following letter:

Dear Soldier:

I am a kid in a Jewish high school in America. I’m sure I cannot understand what you are feeling at this moment. I’m sure you feel scared, tired, angry, but also determined. I, and we, can’t put into words how much we appreciate your dedication in serving and protecting Medinat Yisrael during this sad/tragic time. Hashem Yishmor. May Hashem keep you and the nation safe. B’ezrat Hashem this will end soon.

Love,

Josh

Josh came home that evening and told his mother that they had written letters in school but didn’t think anybody would ever read it. His mother said, “You never know.” The letters were flown to Israel and ended up in the hands of an alumnus learning at Gush who didn’t know what to do with them, so he asked the American mashgiach (counselor) who gave them to his upstairs neighbor who had been drafted and was heading down south. Copies of these letters were distributed to a number of army bases. Two days later, Josh received an email from a sophomore girl in SAR.

Hi Josh,

Good morning, I hope you are well. I’m Mali and I’m a sophomore. I thought I’d just let you know that your letter got to a chayal in Israel. My sister’s boyfriend who is currently serving as a צנחן, paratrooper, in the army received your letter. It was very much appreciated and it was a beautiful letter. I thought you would appreciate knowing that a chayal got your letter and appreciated it. Thank you so much for writing the letter. Have a great day!

Best,

Mali

(Short update from Monday, October 23: The chayal and his girlfriend got engaged this week.)

But it gets better. The next day, Thursday, October 14, Rabbi Jonathan Kroll, co-principal of SAR, received a call from a mefaked on another army base in Israel telling him how moved he was by the letter written by a Josh that had reached his army base and had been passed around to all the soldiers and to give him a yasher koach. So, the words written in just a minute or two had impacted and touched the hearts of so many chayalim thousands of miles away.

Words that heal, words that uplift. והחיים ביד הלשון.

At the outset of my remarks I mentioned the Kishniev pogroms and the sense of Jewish vulnerability and defenselessness that emerged from that watershed event in history. Let me close with some words of a Holocaust survivor and gadol bYisrael, Rav Yisrael Gustman, zt”l.

Rav Gustman was a young brilliant talmid chacham in Vilna before World War II who lost his entire family in the war. He survived by hiding in the forests and fighting with the partisans until he made his way after the war to America and then to Israel where he opened a small yeshiva in Rechavia called Netazch Yisrael. On Thursdays, Rav Gustman would give a shiur klali that was open to the community and was attended by many notable baalei batim, including professors and Supreme Court justices. One of those was Professor Robert Auman, who later went on to win the Nobel Prize. In the early weeks of June 1982 during the first Lebanon War, Professor Auman’s oldest son, Shlomo, a reservist called up to fight, fell in battle. As I was in my shana alef at Gush, Rav Gustman came to the shiva house right after the burial and this is an account that has been published of Rav Gustman’s words on that day:

Rav Gustman entered and asked to sit next to Professor Aumann, who said: “Rabbi, I so appreciate your coming to the cemetery, but now is time for you to return to your yeshiva.” Rav Gustman spoke, first in Yiddish and then in Hebrew, so that all those assembled would understand:

“I am sure that you don’t know this, but I had a son named Meir. He was a beautiful child. He was taken from my arms and executed. I escaped. I later bartered my child’s shoes so that we would have food, but I was never able to eat the food—I gave it away to others. My Meir is a kadoshhe is holyhe and all the 6 million who perished are holy.”

Rav Gustman then added: “I will tell you what is transpiring now in the World of Truth in Gan Edenin heaven. My Meir is welcoming your Shlomo into the minyan and is saying to him ‘I died because I am a Jewbut I wasn’t able to save anyone else. But your Shlomo, he died defending the Jewish People and the Land of Israel. My Meir is a kadosh; he is holybut your Shlomo is a shaliach tzibbura chazan in that holy, heavenly minyan.”

Rav Gustman continued: “I never had the opportunity to sit shiva for my Meir; let me sit here with you just a little longer.” (From “The Rabbi and the Professor,” Rabbi Ari Kahn)

We will use our words this week and for however many more weeks it takes to pray to God, to beseech God to have mercy on all those in harm’s way, to defend the State of Israel online and in print, to pray for the chayalim and chayalot and to use our dibbur (speech) to enrich and uplift and support each other and the whole of Am Yisrael in these difficult days. וכן יהי רצון


Rabbi Helfgot is chair of the Department of Torah SheBaal Peh at SAR High School, serves as rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, and is an adjunct faculty member at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He taught for many years at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education as well as serving on the faculty of the Wexner Heritage Program. He has authored and edited a number of volumes in English and Hebrew on various topics in Jewish studies.

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