The Limits of Language
In a poem entitled שכחה, “Oblivion” by the Israeli poet and Holocaust survivor Tuvia Ruebner (b. 1924), the speaker imagines himself another Ezekiel, called upon by God to prophesy to dry bones. The speaker tries to speak, but he is a “stutterer,” like Moses.
קומו! … כמו …
בפי חוטבת לשוני זרה
Arise! … As …
In my mouth my foreign tongue flails about.
He manages to call out קומו, “Arise!,” but this imperative breaks down immediately into the near-homonym כמו, “like,” and then trails off entirely. The would-be prophet can, in the end, only “fall mute upon the bones.” Ruebner’s poem represents one manifestation of a very common trope in literature on the Holocaust: the inexpressibility, the incomparability of the disaster.
A similar notion occurs in a much earlier work, the biblical book of Lamentations. Across the first two chapters of the book we hear, alternatively, the voice of the poet and the voice of personified Zion, until finally, in Lam 2:13, the poet faces Zion, and confesses his inadequacy:
מָה אֲעִידֵךְ מָה אֲדַמֶּה לָּךְ הַבַּת יְרוּשָׁלִַם מָה אַשְׁוֶה לָּךְ וַאֲנַחֲמֵךְ בְּתוּלַת בַּת צִיּוֹן כִּי גָדוֹל כַּיָּם שִׁבְרֵךְ מִי יִרְפָּא לָךְ.
What can I take as witness, to what can I liken you, O fair Jerusalem? What can I match with you to console you, O fair maiden Zion? For great as the sea is your breaking; who can heal you?
Alan Mintz, in his classic analysis of Jewish literature of destruction, has characterized this verse as “one of the most important in biblical literature” for “the intimate light it casts on the dilemma of the ancient writer in the face of catastrophe.”
The Size of the Sea
The verse is blatantly paradoxical: In one breath, the poet both denies the possibility of comparison, and in fact compares. A prosaic solution to this paradox emerges in relation to a previous disavowal of a comparand, by Zion in Lam 1:12.
הַבִּיטוּ וּרְאוּ אִם יֵשׁ מַכְאוֹב כְּמַכְאֹבִי.
Look and see, is there any pain like my pain?
The poet in Lam 2:13 reinforces Zion’s assertion: Zion’s pain can be compared to no other pain. It can only be compared to something entirely other than pain, to the sea. This comparison thus, does not mitigate but underscores the poet’s inability to contextualize Zion’s pain among other tragedies, and thereby to comfort her.
But what, precisely, is the force of the comparison? In what way does Zion’s “breaking” resemble the sea? The obvious and explicit answer to the question is that both are גדול, “great.” A number of verses, such as Ps 104:25, underscore the incalculable breadth of the sea:
זֶה הַיָּם גָּדוֹל וּרְחַב יָדָיִם שָׁם רֶמֶשׂ וְאֵין מִסְפָּר.
There is the sea, great and wide, with its creeping things beyond number.
The breadth of the sea also figures in a poignant tannaitic teaching that is not irrelevant to the circumstances of bereft Zion: A woman whose husband is lost in “waters that have no end” (מים שאין להן סוף)—a body of water whose distant shore is not visible—may not remarry, because it is possible that her husband was cast, undetected, onto that shore, and yet lives.
The Violence of the Sea
But are there other undercurrents, so to speak, in the comparison to the sea in Lam 2:13? The eighteenth century political philosopher Edmund Burke, in his famous remarks on the sublime, notes that it is not merely due to its size that the ocean inspires the reaction we associate with the sublime, but because it is an object of terror:
A level plain of a vast extent on land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean: but can it ever fill the mind with anything so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes; but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror.
Various biblical verses put forward the sea as an object of terror on account of its violence, or its destructive power:
עָלַי סָמְכָה חֲמָתֶךָ וְכָל מִשְׁבָּרֶיךָ עִנִּיתָ.
Your fury lies heavy upon me, you afflict me with all your breakers.
וַתַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי מְצוּלָה בִּלְבַב יַמִּים וְנָהָר יְסֹבְבֵנִי כָּל מִשְׁבָּרֶיךָ וְגַלֶּיךָ עָלַי עָבָרוּ.
You cast me into the depths, into the heart of the sea, the waves floods engulfed me. All your breakers and billows passed over me.
Both of these verses speak of משבריך, “breakers” as the sea’s agent of violence. It is not unlikely that the word שבר “breaking” in Lam 2:13 is meant to echo משבר, “breaker,” and to activate the violence of the sea to which that breaking is compared.
The Sound of the Sea
Another distinctive feature of the sea in the Bible is its sound, and this feature, too, may bear on Lam 2:13. The sea’s great roar—even specifically the roar of the “breakers”—sometimes serves as a reference point for God’s majesty, as in Ps 93:3-4:
נָשְׂאוּ נְהָרוֹת יְ-הוָה נָשְׂאוּ נְהָרוֹת קוֹלָם יִשְׂאוּ נְהָרוֹת דָּכְיָם. מִקֹּלוֹת מַיִם רַבִּים אַדִּירִים מִשְׁבְּרֵי יָם אַדִּיר בַּמָּרוֹם יְ-הוָה.
The ocean raises, O Lord, the ocean raises its voice, the ocean raises its pounding. Above the voice of the mighty waters, more majestic than the breakers of the sea, is the Lord, majestic on high.
The image of God elevated above the raging sea is bound up with a mythic account of creation in which God defeats the sea, and in so doing, quiets it. This victory, in turn, is a sign of God’s governance over the din of peoples (Ps 65:8):
מַשְׁבִּיחַ שְׁאוֹן יַמִּים שְׁאוֹן גַּלֵּיהֶם וַהֲמוֹן לְאֻמִּים.
[He] stills the roar of the seas, the roar of their waves, and the tumult of peoples.
This mythic pattern of conquest by silencing is deeply embedded in the Ancient Near Eastern world of which the Bible is a product. In the version of the flood myth preserved in the story of Atra-hasis, the human population grows to the point that its noise disturbs the gods, and Enlil submerges the earth in order to obtain silence.
In light of the close connection between noise and assembly, as preserved, for example, in the pairing of seas and peoples in Ps 65:8, quoted above, and in the roots ה.מ.י and ר.ג.ש, which can describe both a tumult and an assembly, we should probably also think of the story of the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) as a (distant) reflex of the same dynamic. A crowd assembles against God, and he stills it.
The Non-sense of the Sea?
Lamentations 2:13 does not, of course, mean to imply that Zion’s destruction is comparable to the loudness of the sea; it is not altogether clear what such a comparison would even mean. But I propose, tentatively, that the verse may mean to invoke the sound of the sea for its imperviousness to verbalization. In other words, the sound of the sea may be important for Lam 2:13 not insofar as sound opposes silence, but insofar as sound opposes sense. The sea may signify, in short, the failure of language and meaning.
The opposition between sea sound and creative human sense-making is one of the major tropes in the work of the American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Near the beginning of one of his most famous poems, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” the speaker reflects on his experience of a woman singing by the sea:
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
Although the woman sings the sounds of the sea, her song and the sea do not mingle: For the sea grinds and gasps, whereas she sings “word by word.” Stevens’ poetry is a paean to the power of the human imagination, but also, simultaneously, an acknowledgment of the Kantian Ding an sich (the thing in itself), the “meaningless plungings of water and the wind” (from later in the same poem) upon which our imagination exerts itself.
The Bible sets the oceanic chaos in contrast with ordered creation, most famously in Genesis 1, but is this more specific opposition between oceanic sound and vocalized sense present in the Bible? In Genesis 1, God does bound the sea by means of speech, but a contrast between sound and sense is hardly pronounced in this story, and it is not even clear whether the תהום, “deep” that precedes God’s intervention is loud or silent. If Lam 2:13 means implicitly to invoke the sea as a figure of non-sense, then it would not, to my knowledge, find support in any unambiguous parallel in the Bible. But this notion follows naturally upon the verse’s explicit claim for the limits of language, and incrementally upon descriptions of the sea and its sound elsewhere in the Bible.
Looking, not Comparing
In Lam 1:12, cited above, the claim of incomparability follows after an imperative to see: “Look and see.” Imperatives to see dominate the opening chapter of the book; the nations are told this in Lam 1:12 and again in 1:18:
שִׁמְעוּ נָא כָל עמים [הָעַמִּים] וּרְאוּ מַכְאֹבִי בְּתוּלֹתַי וּבַחוּרַי הָלְכוּ בַשֶּׁבִי.
Hear, all you peoples, and behold my agony: My maidens and my youths Have gone into captivity!
This same imperative to see is addressed to God as well in Lam 1:9, 11, and 20.
The claim of incomparability in Lam 1:12 and Lam 2:13 can be understood in part as a refusal to compare, as a decision to look squarely at the catastrophe without turning away, and without identifying in it a general feature that would allow one to file it among other things marked by the same feature.
From the other direction, the ultimate fulfillment of Zion’s imperative to look and see if any pain compares to hers comes not in the discovery that there is no comparable pain, but in the choice to focus on—to look at and see—Zion’s pain, to consider, as far as possible, the Ding an sich. Yom Hashoah calls upon us to respond in a similar way to the Holocaust: Before we can even attempt to frame or explain it, first we must try unflinchingly to see it.
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April 20, 2017
September 22, 2019
Dr. Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Chair of Jewish Thought and Culture in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has an M.A. from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. from Yale. His research focuses on law and ethics in rabbinic Judaism. He has also written on topics in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism, and on Jewish liturgical poetry (piyyut) from late antiquity.
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