Songs of Praise – A War Diary
For the director of music. To the tune of “The Death of the Son.” A psalm of David.
“I will thank Hashem, with all my heart; I will tell of all Your wondrous deeds.
I will be glad and rejoice in You; will sing the praises of Your name, O Most High…Hashem is a fortress for the oppressed, a fortress in times of trouble.
Those who know Your name will trust in You, for You have never forsaken those who seek You…
The nations have fallen into the pit they have made;
Their feet are caught in the very net they have hidden.
Hashem is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of His hands.”
This psalm is prefaced by a macabre instruction, that it is to be sung to the tune of dead children, a sound that is perpetual and yet unknowable. For eons on this planet, parents both during and after war have been forced to memorize this requiem. It is the ghastly fulfillment of that most elusive of aspirations – the dream of universal brotherhood, a common experience that can be found in the same hole blasted through millions upon billions of lives. `Imagine, there’s no heaven, above us only sky’ is not nearly as convincing as the shared fate of our children’s blood seeping in the earth.
It is a unique melody of the death of a son/daughter, this music that is not played on instruments, but reverberates in limbs and circulates in the blood. Parents do not play the song in front of others; nor in many cases for each other, as the memory of the child who died can transform their marriage into a polite exchange, a dance of extreme caution, forever stripped of passion and robbed of joy and spontaneity. It is a private performance that no one can see, this elegy for the dead child, its refrain murmured soundlessly at 3 am when it is impossible to sleep; or in the shadow of the late afternoon, staring at nothing for hours beyond the twilight and the black; or passing by the door of their room, a space never again to be occupied, but with all of the child’s clothing and mementoes within, untouched and untouchable.
David, I noticed in certain translations that they refuse to deal with your plain phrase עַל-מוּת לַבֵּן [transliterated “al mut laben”] and render it as anything other than a void that has emerged to swallow the parents’ legacy, a shining future suddenly a dead end. One translation converted it into a piece of phonics – literally writing “mutlaben” in English – less a meaningful phrase than a strange incantation; another split the difference and offered “upon the death of Labben”, as though the deceased is just some far away person with a funny name, and not the one that came out of your womb, nursed from your breasts, ran into your arms stumbling as they learned to walk, as you smiled as though you would smile forever. Not that “ben,” but someone else’s child. Not that. Never that.
And what are the words that give voice to this song for the dead child? A lament for a life cut short, a future denied? Not on your watch, David. Instead, I was startled to read your almost chirpy bit of gratitude: ““I will thank Hashem, with all my heart; I will tell of all Your wondrous deeds. I will be glad and rejoice in You; will sing the praises of Your name, O Most High.”
Now is time to tell of God’s wondrous deeds, to turn the Almighty into Ulysses or Hercules, that we should be grateful, the destruction of our futures notwithstanding? Was this meant to be a comfort to parents as they stand over the grave, as the part of them that is the most of them is lowered into a black hole of sadness and incomprehensibility and rage?
I acknowledge that there is a grim but belated redress in seeing the fortunes of war shift, that “the nations have fallen into the pit they have made; their feet are caught in the very net they have hidden…the wicked are ensnared by the work of His hands.” Presently, there are numerous media articles with headings that are, I suppose, meant to deliver some meager satisfaction: “Has Hamas miscalculated?” or “Hamas Started it but We Will Finish it.”
Perhaps that might make you nod in recognition, David, but we both know that the bravado embedded in these titles, hides a sickeningly random game with only one rule – can men and women, parents and children, sons and daughters, grandmothers and teenagers and babies on both sides, survive long enough in a situation of precariousness, until the conflict falls over from its own exhaustion? This most tenuous of calculations, as slender as a shaft of light from the soon to be closed over burial plot, works outside of the boundaries of right and wrong, good and evil, the oppressor and the oppressed. It lurks beneath our frenzied opinions, our angry slogans and talking points, our fashionable marching in the streets, and asks only one thing from the brave Odysseus in Heaven: Will my child be one of the lucky ones? Or will we too, soon enough, have to learn David’s secret tune, the one that accompanies the dying and eternally haunts the living?