Hagai El-Ad

Words too poor to describe

Photo by the author
Photo by the author

Israelis my age (I was born in Haifa in 1969) grew up and matured here, in the years following that fifty-years-old war, the one whose sirens yelled on Yom Kippur. The war that just recently, on the occasion of its sad jubilee, memory has returned and touched its scars, fluttering over what somehow managed – after half a century – to heal, yet feeling how that wound is still so fresh, vulnerable and bleeding. The surprise and bereavement, the fear of death, the wounded and the captives. Like who knows how many other Israelis I re-watched, a few weeks ago, tv clips from those distant days. Like who knows how many other Israelis I was moved to tears watching grainy videos of our returning captives. I recall the words from the Israeli television report on the day of the return of the captives from Syria, words articulated ever so gently, etched with a modesty that tears the heart: “And all words are poor to describe what has happened here.”

This modesty, surely, suits these very days that we are living through now, the days in which the magnitude of the horror keeps darkening. The soul already senses, and begs: enough. But the cruelest truth of all is that what has already transpired is not in our power to undo. More and more clouds gather and who knows how to name them all, the families and the children, because for such horror there is no comprehension. And all words are poor to describe what has happened here.

A few months had passed since that war and the terrible tragedy of Kibbutz Beit HaShita – 11 of its sons fell in the Yom Kippur war – until the late Dorit Tzameret wrote in 1974 about “[t]he path, the boulevard, a skyward eagle tarries” (“The Wheat Still Grows Again”; translation: Elli Sacks). Now, barely a few days have passed since the day of the massacre at Kibbutz Be’eri and who knows how many more moshavim and kibbutzim, and it is impossible to read her words

A boy upon the grass, next to his puppy lies.
The nights descend upon a well-lit room,
On those within, and thoughts locked up inside

and not burst into tears. And who knows how many more months or years will have to pass until someone finds the words, certainly poor to describe, the horror of October 7, 2023.

There is a strong longing, of course, to imagine that it was just a terrible nightmare, from which we will be blessed to wake up. But reality is much worse than the most horrible of nightmares. And even though we still do not know the full extent, this is already clear: the collective scars in our consciousness that are now being violently awoken contain – and correspond with – that war in the Sinai and the Golan, but are deeper than it.

I remember and know all too well how precisely after the horrors in Europe, after “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”, humanity stood up in 1948 and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From the blackest ashes were born the words that are the conscience of human existence, expressing the basic belief in the humanity of all members of the human family. Without this faith, I have nothing in the world.

It is hard to imagine the mental enormity it required, to survive those years and after that not only to go on and keep faith in humanity – but to formulate it as a universal compass. And in the very same breath, it is also true that in an interview before her death, the late Tzameret spoke about how she meant “a kind of hope. From these ruins, from the sadness, from the sorrow, things will also grow that are positive. Also things of another future. I meant it, but the hope was not fulfilled.”

We have no perspective of time. It is still early, too early. And then the pain pierces the mind: for so many, it is already too late. The memory cannot even touch the scar yet, because it is not there: the smoke is still swirling in the air, and the bleeding – in the most literal sense – has not yet stopped. This is the time, if at all, for words few and fragile, written with utter modestly, from now until the next breath.

“The fields spill out below, as far as earth meets sky.”

Originally published in Hebrew in Haaretz on October 12, 2023.

About the Author
Former executive director of B'Tselem
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