As beautifully expressed in the musical, Hamilton,
“there are moments that the words don’t reach
there is suffering too terrible to name.”
Finding words when words don’t reach
Jeremiah’s calling is to let us know that the end of our homeland is coming. He did not want the job to begin with and he finds himself in all sorts of terrible situations as a result of doing his job well—he suffers death threats, imprisonment, and exile to Egypt, among other things.
In these moments, these moments beyond comprehension, Jeremiah’s speech fails him as well. There are moments that the words don’t reach.
Jeremiah is aware that sometimes there is nothing to say. When God first speaks to him, telling him that he has been chosen as a prophet, Jeremiah replies, “Ahhhhh! My Lord, God! Look, I don’t know speaking.” And although Jeremiah is, according to Jewish tradition, the writer of Lamentations, the one who turns the greatest suffering of our people into a series of acrostic poems addressed to God, Jeremiah retains always the ability to lose coherence, to abandon words when nothing can be said to improve a situation.
Using vocal gestures when words don’t reach
In these moments, we find interjections such as “ahhh,” “hoi,” and “oi.” As the great Biblical Hebrew grammarian Wilhelm Gesenius defines them, interjections are “vocal gestures.”
Speech, the tool of our intellect, is demoted to a tool of the body. We make sound instead of sense.
But the sounds ripped from our body carry great meaning. There are times for “ahhh” and times for “oi.”
In Biblical Hebrew, we tend towards “ahhh” as an expression of sorrow, regret and fear. “Oi” usually covers grief, despair, and anguish. It means something when we progress from an “ahhh” to an “oi.”
But most important, these noises are made for the person expressing them. They are not a form of outward expression; they do not serve as communication. Rather, they allow the speaker a moment of pure existence, of feeling, of living, before the speaker has to face the world once more.
In our haftarah, Jeremiah is commanded to purchase the field of his kinsman even as all the fields are seized by the invading Babylonian army.
God intends this purchase as a sign that there will be a time when life will go back to normal, when we will return to exile and live again in our land. Jeremiah does as he is commanded.
But he takes a moment.
Before he prays to God, praising God’s power and trying to understand this thing God has commanded him to do, Jeremiah opens his mouth to noise. He begins with an “ahhh.”
Because sometimes, allowing ourselves a primal scream, a moment of return to the world pre-speech and pre-action, is all that it takes to get us through to the moments where we can once again use speech to create the world we want to live in.
See more: Parashat Behar
Originally posted as part of the Conservative Yeshiva at the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center’s Torah Sparks. Support Torah learning from the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center/Conservative Yeshiva for leaders and seekers around the world here.