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By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept and refused to sing

The people mourn Jerusalem, and rage at its destruction, even as they believe they'll return one day. In the meantime, in exile, they help each other
By the Waters of Babylon. (screen capture, YouTube)
By the Waters of Babylon. (screen capture, YouTube)

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” Nebuchadnezzar’s men jeer. “We hear the people of Judah are excellent musicians. Play us a little something.” The Babylonian soldiers have stopped by the side of the river to allow their horses some time to drink. They pull out their jugs and, with their backs up against the riverbed’s rocks, legs splayed out in front of them, they chuckle and banter, searching for distractions from the midday sun, as they eat what is left of the food in their sacks.

The exiles watch the soldiers chew. They watch them swallow. It has been three weeks without food in Jerusalem and they would give anything to feel some of that cool water trickle down their throats. But they will themselves to stand upright, despite everything.

And they refuse to sing.

A little boy stifles a whimper as he pulls on his father’s sleeve. The heavy chains around his ankles hurt and he wants his mother. Noticing the boy’s large, sunken eyes, one of the soldiers tosses him a hunk of dry cheese. The boy, shocked at his good fortune, hesitates for a split second before bending down to grab it. By the time he does, dozens of bony fingers are clawing at it, and before he even has a chance, it’s gone. Amused, the soldiers start taking turns throwing tiny bits of food and watching the exiles flock like pigeons on sand. They have found the entertainment they were looking for.

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept as we remembered Zion. There on the willow trees we hung up our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors for amusement. (Psalms 137)

They march in the direction of Babylon and as the distance from Jerusalem increases, so does the ache. The exiles imagine their golden city left alone. Abandoned. They imagine she must be crying.

Crying for the life that used to fill her streets and crying for the neighbors who used to whittle away time over cups of tea in each other’s kitchens. She must be crying for her busy marketplace that now sits idle, its shingles rocking in the empty wind, and crying for her dance halls shocked into silence. She must be crying, they imagine, for the children who used to skip home, pockets crammed with sweets, and for the young husband who used to whistle through her paths as the sun rose and he headed out to work her fields. She must be crying, they imagine, for her rulers, and her prophets, and her beggars and her priests. For her gates, and her sanctuaries, and her mansions and her walls. For her heart that has stopped beating. For the people she loved, who just wouldn’t listen. She must be crying, they imagine, for all of it.

She weeps, weeps through the nights; on her cheeks, tears. There is none to comfort her. (Lamentations 1)

But if she is anything like them, then she is also raging.

Raging because she watched a mother gather up a sack of bones in her arms, moaning from the deepest of places, that she couldn’t save her baby. And raging because she saw a brother split his last crust of bread with his little sister, and because the next day that brother died. Raging because it feels like humanity has gone mad and because evil seems to know no bounds. Raging at the violation, and the loss, and the desperation, and the death. She must be raging, like them, at the soldiers and their victims, and at the world, and at God. Raging because He permitted it. Because He endured it while she writhed in pain. And if He controls it all, He should have controlled the bleeding.

Remember, O Lord…the day of Jerusalem’s fall; how they cried ‘Strip her! Strip her to her very foundations.” (Psalms 137)

But the soldiers have swords, so the exiles have no choice. They march in line as they are told. Ghosts putting one foot in front of the other. An elderly man slows his stride and then rocks in place, once, before collapsing to the ground. The heat and distance are just too much for him. As quickly as they flocked to the cheese, the exiles rally around the man, lifting his limpness and draping his heavy arms over their already-tired shoulders.

Not all of them liked the man. Many that drag him now disagreed with him fiercely once. Some believed his political views were dangerous. Others doubted his religious integrity. But none of what seemed important then is anymore. There is an unspoken understanding — out here, they only have each other. So they take turns over the last few kilometers, shifting his weight from one person to the next. And as they do, they begin to understand that the real tragedy is that it took exile to teach them.

They believe they will get back to their land one day because the prophets predicted that, too. So, as they walk, they vow through labored breaths that next time, they will know better.

About the Author
Yael Leibowitz has her Master’s degree in Judaic Studies from Columbia University. Prior to making aliyah, Yael taught Tanakh at the Upper School of Ramaz, and then went on to join the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught Continuing Education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as Resident Scholar at the Jewish Center of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies, and is a frequent lecturer in North America and the United Kingdom.
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