Shabbat Shalom: Languages without words

Jan 18, 2024 | Article

By: Renée Rockford
President & CEO

I am afraid that I will have no words. When I arrive in Israel on a JEWISHcolorado volunteer mission this Sunday, I will finally see those in our sister communities who are living every moment with the impact and devastation of October 7 and with whom we have communicated only via email and Zoom. I am afraid that I will be at a loss for what to say.  

It is the same heavy heart I have when entering the home of those in mourning, joining them on low seats, pulling the cushions from the couch to be lower to the floor; with only our presence and our listening to hold their sadness.  

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann teaches that Judaism is a spiritual practice based in listening. How could it not be with the central and oldest fixed daily prayer in our liturgy of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel?”   

She shared this story from the Talmud of Rabbi Eliezer who becomes ill, and his friend Rabbi Yochanan pays him a visit. The story at first seems like a lesson in ‘what not to do in a pastoral visit.’ Seeing his friend crying, Rabbi Yochanan begins a rapid-fire questioning: Are you crying because of this? Are you crying because of that? Is it because you haven’t enough sustenance? Because of lack of children? And he keeps going. Finally, Rabbi Yochanan is silent. Eliezer tells him that he is afraid of losing Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty. Admittedly, this is a strange response! Rabbi Yohanan was known in the Talmud for his physical beauty. But this can also be understood as a metaphor about the fear of dying and leaving a world filled with God’s beauty. 

Rabbi Yohanan listens and affirms, “Yes. You do have reason to weep.” And then, miraculously, they weep together. After they have cried together, after he has been fully seen and heard by his friend, Rabbi Yochanan offers his hand and Rabbi Eliezer has the strength to rise. When Rabbi Yohanan can listen to his friend’s pain, and witness and affirm it, healing and transformation are present.  

And so, we are reminded of the words of the modern Hebrew poet and writer Chaim Nachman Bialik: “So much for the language of words. But, in addition, ‘there are yet to the Lord’ languages without words: songs, tears, and laughter. And the speaking creature has been found worthy of them all. These languages begin where words leave off, and their purpose is not to close but to open. They rise from the void. They ARE the rising up of the void. Therefore, at times they overflow and sweep us off in the irresistible multitude of their waves; therefore, at times they cost a man his wits, or even his life.”  

And so, I hope to avoid repeating Rabbi Yohanan’s initial error, however difficult it will be to remain worldless. However scary it will feel to look into the eyes of longtime friends and strangers and say nothing. I am preparing myself instead for the shared tears, the silence of just our presence. And just as all of us volunteers will listen, so will we tell, upon our return. We will tell their stories, show their photographs, convey the weight of their witness. 

Please email Renée Rockford at with questions or comments.