Kol B’ramah

“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, for they are no more.” (Jer. 31:15)

This text is used in the UK Liberal Machzor (prayerbook for the High Holy Days), in the Musaf service on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). This service chronicles the political, emotional and spiritual history of the Jewish people, particularly the darkest times, such as martyrdoms, pogroms (violent attacks on Jews, often condoned by the State), expulsions, and the Shoah. Shoah means catastrophe, or devastation, and is the term often used within the Jewish world to describe the murdering of European Jewry by the Nazis in World War II. ‘Holocaust’ (literally, ‘whole burning’, as on a pagan altar), while a commonly used word for the same phenomenon, has met with wide disfavour within the Jewish community, as it has connotations of religious sacrifice – which is not an appropriate way to describe the actions of the Nazis or what was done to millions of Jews.

The text of Kol b’Ramah is poignant, giving us a glimpse of loss on an intimately human scale, a mother’s grief for the death of her children. While the text has its own unique meaning for a moment in time, of a specific person feeling the loss of particular people with a specific relationship to her, it also has symbolic power, and can speak universally about the experience of loss. And, as always in Jewish text, there are layers of meaning. Is Rachel weeping only for the children she knew? She may well also be weeping for the children she will never know, the children of her children, and their descendants as well.

There is an important teaching in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a), which says: “For this reason was man created alone: to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whoever preserves a single soul, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.” How is this so? The teaching continues: “We find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother [Abel], that it is written: the bloods of your brother cry to me. Not the blood of your brother, but the bloods of your brother, is said, i.e. his blood and the blood of his [potential] descendants.”

Including Kol b’Ramah can stand for the loss of one child, for its future, and for its descendants; and it can stand for the loss of countless children, and countless futures, and countless descendants. As Heschel said, (speaking out against the Vietnam war): “Remember the blood of the innocent cries forever. Should that blood stop to cry, humanity would cease to be.”

I have used motifs from the 11th century Mi Sinai music heard in the Musaf service for Yom Kippur, and combined this with melodic word painting to create a musical midrash on the text of Kol b’Ramah.

  • Ramah means ‘height’, hence the rise in the music at the start, and hovering around the higher note.
  • N’hi (wailing) also meaning a mournful song, is given a momentary feel of lyricism on the word.
  • B’chi meaning continuous weeping, is given a repeated motif, and longer music than n’hi.
  • Tam’rurim, intense bitterness, is given even longer music, and a more chromatic, twisting treatment.
  • Rachel’s weeping, by this time, showing some tiredness, is given a quietly sobbing motif, with a burst of energy at the mention of her children (baneiha) for the first time.
  • Her refusal (meianah) to be consoled (hinacheim) is indicated by the continuation of exactly the same music as her sobbing, and the second mention of her children uses the children’s motif again, but more embellished.
  • Ki einenu, ‘for they are no more’, the final cry of despair, is given the widest and most heart-rending upward interval, only to collapse downwards in sorrow.

Although this was composed for Yom Kippur, the leader of one Jewish community told me that, much as they appreciated the power of the musical setting, they did not feel they could use it in their service, as it would be “too upsetting” for the congregation. I’m not sure what to make of that. It is an upsetting text, deliberately included in the liturgy to help us focus on a hugely important idea, what loss of life can mean to us. Some liturgy, especially that of High Holy Days, should disturb us, reach to our emotional core, challenge and re-sensitise us to what we do not always want to look at. A J Heschel, in his book ‘The Prophets’, wrote: “Our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, but our hearts try to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence the conscience.” Prayer in the synagogue is not always there to ‘calm the nerves’. Substituting the word ‘synagogue’ for the ‘theatre’, we could borrow some lines from Edward Bond’s poem ‘On leaving the theatre’:

Do not leave the synagogue satisfied
Do not be reconciled […]
Sympathy that’s not also an action
Corrodes […]
Leave the synagogue hungry
For change

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