In Judaism, the difference between faith and despair is a simple phoneme: the sound of the dental consonant “d.” In the oldest and most basic of Jewish prayers, the one Jews recite several times a day: upon arising, in the afternoon, in our evening prayers, the one we recite upon going to sleep, even the one we should try and recite upon dying is the Sh’ma, which affirms the Jewish people’s faith in a singular God. “Sh’ma Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” “Hear, the people of Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Presumably God is overhearing our proclamation of faith.
When I say the Sh’ma, I have to make certain that I enunciate the final “d” sound of “echad,” meaning “one.” If I don’t, if my mouth stays open, and my tongue fails to touch the roof of my mouth and aspirate the “d,” I am saying a different word: “echah,” meaning “why” or “where” or “how.” “Hear, you people of Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is where?” That question, that place of ultimate despair, sits inside of the Sh’ma prayer. I have to work my tongue against it each time. “Echah” is nested inside of “Echad,” as despair may nest inside of faith.
“Echa” opens the Book of Lamentations (Jeremiah), which Jews traditionally read on Tish B’Av, a fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple twice and the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem. It is a sound of despair, of utter lack of faith. “How solitary the city sits, once so full of people,” Jeremiah begins his lament.
I am aware of saying the Sh’ma, especially so during Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was one week ago. I imagine the few remaining survivors of the Shoah reciting that prayer, but in some way, Jews everywhere can count themselves as survivors in the broadest sense, since the Nazi project was to wipe all Jews off the face of the Earth ultimately. And for survivors of the Shoah, every day is Yom HaShoah, the way for me, every day I remember the passing of my father.
As the day of my father’s death in the Western calendar approaches, I feel that sense of “echah.” His yahrzheit, the anniversary of his death following the Jewish lunar calendar, already passed. In a moment of nearsightedness, I misread the date, and stood up in my synagogue on Shabbat a week too early and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish. Then, in a flurry of activity, I only realized close to midnight on the actual day that I had forgotten to light the candle. And so I decided to light the candle last night, on the eve of his death in the solar calendar, which is today, April 23rd. It has been four years. Hear O Jewish people [myself included] the Lord is our God, the Lord is One—even, or most especially, in moments of despair.