March 23, 2017
It’s simple, really.
Hold your breath underwater.
Ten seconds for you,
ten seconds for God.
Careful not to mix up
their, they’re, there.
Careful not to confuse you
or you’re or your.
We wore knee-socks high
to the hinges in our pelvises
to cover would-be bends and leaks, split-open tangerines
and hid sticky collar bones beneath starchy
The sacred was lost to the profanity of our bodies,
and like Nietzsche, to us, God was probably dead.
Joan Didion begins her 1979 essay, the White Album, by writing, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ She continues, ‘We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’
I am a writer. And, I have a complicated relationship with words. The written word is my friend. The spoken word, often a distant relative. To me, the spoken word is often full of deceit, empty. I am easily tongue-tied, get nervous and clammy.
I write to give voice to the things I can’t say. I write to give dimension to all the things I cannot say. I write to mourn, to lament, to celebrate, to split open and come undone. I am a poet, an essayist, a compulsive journaler and cataloguer of people and things. Writing is often slow, and writing is sometimes a frenzy.
Yirmiyahu is a writer. Often referred to as the weeping prophet, he is also a poetic prophet, a prosaic prophet. In his eponymous book, we see the traces that are left behind by the writer. We can read and hopefully internalize the frenetic moments of chaos and pain, the slight moments of ecstasy, the future of the Jewish people.
Writing is response, and writing is also creation. For me, writing has become an increasingly effective tool in working through trauma. The process gives me space to react, grieve, accept, and ultimately, something new, something dynamic springs forth.
Sefer Yirmiyahu is at once a response and a creation. The text carries us through the trauma and pain of his time, and in turn gives voice to the suffering. Yirmiyahu gives volume and words to our lamentations. I would be remiss not to mention that Yirmiyahu is the rumored author of Eicha– another important example of this process.
When I think about it, if I am truly honest with myself, I know I write to be remembered. To cast something in graphite or ink to be read later, maybe taken out of a library, studied, perhaps hated. I write to not be forgotten.
Sefer Yirmiyahu is the preamble to exile. At the end of the text, Jerusalem lie in ruin, and the Jewish people are sent into exile, and as such, Yirmiyahu is desperate to hold on to the stories of the Jewish people, to record their voices, to ensure they are not consigned to oblivion.
Throughout the text, Yirmiyahu prepares the people for exile, and reflects G-d’s call for destruction and silence.
וְהִשְׁבַּתִּ֣י ׀ מֵעָרֵ֣י יְהוּדָ֗ה וּמֵֽחֻצוֹת֙ יְר֣וּשָׁלִַ֔ם ק֤וֹל שָׂשׂוֹן֙ וְק֣וֹל שִׂמְחָ֔ה ק֥וֹל חָתָ֖ן וְק֣וֹל כַּלָּ֑ה כִּ֥י לְחָרְבָּ֖ה תִּהְיֶ֥ה הָאָֽרֶץ׃
And I will silence in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sounds of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride. For the whole town shall fall to ruin.
Here, G-d threatens the Jewish people with silence and ultimately, erasure. The whole town shall fall to ruin, nobody will hear you. Your story will not go on.
G-d’s threat of silence mirrors the reality and experience of true exile–the censored humanity of a people without a story, without pens or paper. In this moment, it is clear to me that exile goes far beyond physical or political isolation. Exile is irrelevance. Exile is deletion.
Exile is inevitable, yet, the power to go on, to survive in exile, in the diaspora, depends on our ability to continue writing our story. Jeremiah literally writes a story in order to live, to allow the jewish people to survive in exile, to maintain an identity, a history.
Everybody in this room is a writer. Some of you will write complex Halachik teshuvot, many of you will write beautiful feminist midrashim on the whole of tanach, and many more of you will write compelling scholarly essays about the ebbs and flows of G-d and Judaism.
Soon, we will be the gatekeepers and pallbearers of our history and tradition. We will be charged with writing down and recording, with giving voice to the suffering, with giving volume to the masses.
We will prepare our people for exile, and we will enable them to resist it when it comes.
We write to build, and we write to stay relevant. We tell ourselves stories in order to live.