While I usually write about language, this week I was at a loss for words.
Like many observant Jews around the world, I emerged from a three-day yom tov information blackout (the first two days of Passover, followed immediately by Shabbat) to hear the devastating news of the murder of two sisters, Maia and Rina Dee, in Israel. By the time I sat down to write this essay, their mother, Lucy, who had been traveling with them on what was supposed to a carefree chol hamoed outing, had succumbed to her injuries.
Shock. Heartbreak. A heavy heart. A burden too great to bear. These are the words, mere arrangements of letters on a page, that we grasp for in our wholly inadequate attempt to express the immensity of such a tragedy. This is one of those times in life when we say, “There are no words.” How can language, any language, possibly convey the grief, the anguish, the unimaginable horror of a family torn in half?
Like many who needed, somehow, even remotely, to share in the sorrow of this family, to feel even an infinitesimal prick of their pain, I sat rapt at my computer watching Rabbi Leo Dee’s eulogy for his daughters. The heartbreak was palpable, but beyond my feeble ability to understand this level of grief. How can a father find words of hesped, of eulogy, for his two daughters taken so brutally from their family?
The wellsprings of faith that allowed Rabbi Dee to summon his feelings, let alone put them into words, are beyond my ken. Yet he did, referencing the Torah portion that we read this past Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Pesach, when Moshe petitions God to “Show me your glory” (”הַרְאֵנִי נָא, אֶת-כְּבֹדֶך).
The answer Moshe receives is that he will be able to see only God’s back. Rabbi Dee, ever faithful, implored his listeners to accept that we, like Moshe — who cannot see God’s face — must accept the reality we can never understand God’s will. Nor can we understand why such savage cruelty exists in God’s world.
I looked for some solace, some meaning in Rabbi Dee’s message — for indeed it was a message, an exhortation, a plea for everyone listening to his words to honor his slain children by continuing to stay unified as a Jewish nation and continuing to trust in God. I focused on the word kavod (כָּבוֹד) cited by Rabbi Dee, usually translated as “honor” or “glory,” especially when referring to God. It is especially apt for this past Torah reading, since another rendering of kavod is respect, whose prefix “re-” signals “back,” and whose root “-spect” means looking. In other words, when we respect someone, we literally look back at him or her, which interestingly was the only way Moshe was permitted to look at God.
The Hebrew root K-V-D (כ-ב-ד), however, has other meanings, rooted in the notion of heaviness. A quick Google translation search defines kaved as “heavy, weighty, leaden, hard, massive, burdensome” — not qualities we ordinarily associate with God, but appropriate for the heaviness of heart we are feeling in the wake of this tragedy. Yet heaviness also has positive connotations. There are substances, like gold, whose weight determines their value. For the same reason, plumpness was admired in ancient societies because someone who can eat whatever he wants is worthy of respect.
So, we have a paradox: As Jews, we believe that God is incorporeal, but we also ascribe to God the heaviness or gravitas of kavod.
In the Kedusha prayer, we proclaim the whole earth to be filled with God’s glory: Melo kol ha’aretz kevodo. Yet the heaviness, the koved, of the past few days that weighs on our hearts seems at odds with the glorious praising of God’s name. How do we reconcile our belief with the enormity, the pressing weight of the tragedy of three lives mercilessly snuffed out, leaving a family of four where there were seven only days ago?
Like Rabbi Dee, and like Moshe Rabbeinu before him, we can only seek God with kavod, looking back with re/spect, looking forward to a day when the heaviness weighing on our hearts will be lifted.
Ann Brodsky of Fair Lawn is an enthusiast of all things language-related. She is a lifelong educator, now at Hunter College, as well as an editor and translator.