Israel-Hamas War

When Words Fail, the Bible Still Murmurs


October 22, 2023

Prof.Marc Zvi Brettler


Marc Zvi Brettler


When Words Fail, the Bible Still Murmurs

A Mosaic with words from Zechariah 8:4-5  outside Shira Hadasha Congregation in Jerusalem's German Colony. 

I arrived in Jerusalem a few hours before Shabbat, two weeks after the horrific massacre perpetrated by Hamas against Israelis on the early morning of October 7. As Rabbi Angela Buchdahl emphasized in a recent sermon, “There are no words.” Yet, I try to find words—not my own words, but as is typically the case for me, words from the Bible, my Bible.

As soon as I entered Jerusalem, I was struck that Jerusalem, normally so full of life, was quite empty—my mind turned to Eichah (Lamentations) 1:4, which I felt was being reenacted:

איכה א:ד דַּרְכֵ֨י צִיּ֜וֹן אֲבֵל֗וֹת
Lam 1:4 Zion’s roads are in mourning,
מִבְּלִי֙ בָּאֵ֣י מוֹעֵ֔ד
Empty of festival pilgrims;
כָּל־שְׁעָרֶ֙יהָ֙ שֽׁוֹמֵמִ֔ין
All her gates are deserted.
כֹּהֲנֶ֖יהָ נֶאֱנָחִ֑ים
Her priests sigh,
בְּתוּלֹתֶ֥יהָ נּוּג֖וֹת
Her maidens are unhappy—
וְהִ֥יא מַר־לָֽהּ׃
She is utterly disconsolate!

And over Shabbat, at different times, different words from the liturgy or biblical readings resonated strongly with me. I kept finding myself drawn to the conclusion of Psalm 29, recited in both the evening and the morning prayers:

תהלים כט:יא יְֽ־הוָ֗ה עֹ֭ז לְעַמּ֣וֹ יִתֵּ֑ן
Ps 29:11 May YHWH grant strength to His people;
יְ־הוָ֓ה ׀ יְבָרֵ֖ךְ אֶת־עַמּ֣וֹ בַשָּׁלֽוֹם׃
may YHWH bestow on His people wellbeing / peace.

This psalm is about YHWH’s great power, yet it concludes with a wish for shalom, peace and well-being. Shalom—in both the sense of peace and well-being is in such short supply here.

In the morning service, I was struck by the words in the haftarah, the prophetic reading, from Deutero-Isaiah, the great exilic prophet of consolation:

ישעיה נד:ח בְּשֶׁ֣צֶף קֶ֗צֶף הִסְתַּ֨רְתִּי
Isa 54:8 In slight anger, for a moment,
פָנַ֥י רֶ֙גַע֙ מִמֵּ֔ךְ
I hid My face from you;
וּבְחֶ֥סֶד עוֹלָ֖ם רִֽחַמְתִּ֑יךְ
But with kindness everlasting I will have compassion on you
אָמַ֥ר גֹּאֲלֵ֖ךְ יְ־הוָֽה׃
—said YHWH your Redeemer.

I do not make believe that I understand divine anger, but I so long for the quick turn-around that this verse promises.

On Shabbat morning, despite everything happening, a bar-mitzvah was celebrated in our synagogue, from a family displaced by the threats from the South and the North. Many children were present, calling to mind one of my favorite verses of consolation:

זכריה ח:ה וּרְחֹב֤וֹת הָעִיר֙ יִמָּ֣לְא֔וּ יְלָדִ֖ים וִֽילָד֑וֹת...
Zech 8:5 And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls…

In fact, this verse is quoted in a mosaic right outside our synagogue, and seeing it reenacted gives me strength.

And just now, I returned from fruit-shopping, where the radio in the fruit store on Derekh Beit-Lechem (Bethlehem Way) was playing the famous verse that appears in both Isaiah and Micah (4:3):

ישעיה ב:ד וְכִתְּת֨וּ חַרְבוֹתָ֜ם לְאִתִּ֗ים
Isa 2:4 And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
וַחֲנִיתֽוֹתֵיהֶם֙ לְמַזְמֵר֔וֹת
And their spears into pruning hooks:
לֹא־יִשָּׂ֨א ג֤וֹי אֶל־גּוֹי֙ חֶ֔רֶב
Nation shall not take up sword against nation;
וְלֹא־יִלְמְד֥וּ ע֖וֹד מִלְחָמָֽה׃
They shall never again know war.

What optimism! In the words of a popular Israeli song לוּ יְהִי (whose title is taken from Genesis 30:34), “May it only be so”!

Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of


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