Al Naharot Bavel (Kol Achai)

July 3, 2023

Spanning the ages, there are a handful of times and places that if a Yid were to close his eyes, he’d be able to feel as if he were transported to that place, seeing his surroundings with perfect clarity – even though he himself had never been there in his current lifetime. For example, witnessing the wondrous Matan Torah at the foot of Har Sinai or vividly observing the Kohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur Avodah in the Beis Hamikdash.

However, with its aching words touching upon the most vulnerable points of our hearts, Al Naharos Bavel (Tehillim 137) depicts yet another one of those moments in time that are seared into our collective consciousness, and is brought to life each time we utter its verses….

“Faster, faster! Keep walking! Keep moving!” the soldiers yelled. “There’s no resting now! Are you praying over there? I’ll whip you until you stop!”

We stumbled onward, our torn feet leaving bloody prints on the road. The heavy metal chains around our necks weighed us down, making it impossible to move as rapidly as the Chaldeans demanded. They would not allow their pitiful captives to slow down or take a moment to catch their breaths. Even the tears that spilled down our cheeks could not be wiped away, and under the blazing summer sun, the salty tears seared our skin, leaving red welts behind.

We tried to sidestep the sprawled corpses of the elderly and little infants that littered the road, victims of the relentless march who had collapsed and died where they lay. The captors were ruthless, keeping the prisoners moving without mercy. Their insistence on haste was due to strict orders from the upper echelons: make sure the Jewish prisoners have no respite. Do not give them time to think. Hurry them onwards, with no time to repent, or pray to their G-d for salvation. Once they have arrived in Babylonia, it will be too late for them to revoke G-d’s decree.

Somewhere between Beis Lechem and Chevron, as we staggered along numbly, we were jolted by a sudden cry that emerged from the mindful among us. “Mameh Rochel!”

We raised our heads and squinted into the distance. Kever Rochel was just ahead, along the road where we were forced to march. Oh, how we longed to throw ourselves against her tombstone once more and let our hearts weep! “Rochel Imeinu!” Loud wailing erupted throughout the chained exiles. “Beseech Hashem to save us from our enemies! Rochel, Imeinu, don’t forget your children!”

“Quiet!” bellowed the sadistic Chaldeans, viciously bringing down their clubs on their captives. “Hurry! Faster! No stopping!”

The endless march continued. We lost count of the days. Eretz Yisroel was far behind us now. We only knew that we were hurt, sick, exhausted, and starving. The days blurred into weeks, then months. We were closer to dead than alive when we collapsed on the banks of the Euphrates River, allowed to rest for the first time. עַל נַהֲרוֹת בָּבֶל – We had reached the rivers of Babylonia. שָׁם יָשַׁבְנוּ גַּם בָּכִינוּ בְּזָכְרֵנוּ אֶת צִיּוֹן – We sat down, and cried. It was there that we realized the enormity of our plight. Not only were we homeless, but our dream of Tzion was laid to ashes as well.

The Leviim, whose tasks included song and musical accompaniment in the Beis Hamikdash, were even more deeply affected by its destruction and by our ensuing exile. עַל עֲרָבִים בְּתוֹכָהּ תָּלִינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵינוּ – They hung their instruments of music in the branches of the weeping willows that lined the riverbank. Just then, a magnificent royal boat came sailing towards us. We lifted our tear-filled eyes to see none other than the wicked King Nevuchadnezzar, emperor of Babylonia, gloating pompously at the sight of his captives.

The madman’s triumphant gaze settled on the hanging harps. כִּי שָׁם שְׁאֵלוּנוּ שׁוֹבֵינוּ דִּבְרֵי שִׁיר וְתוֹלָלֵינוּ שִׂמְחָה -Now was his chance to hear the Temple tunes, whose beauty were famous throughout the ancient world! שִׁירוּ לָנוּ מִשִּׁיר צִיּוֹן – Adding insult to injury, the cruel conqueror sneered, “Sing me the holy songs of Tzion! Sing to my idols the way you would sing in your Sanctuary!”

The Leviim couldn’t believe what they were hearing! אֵיךְ נָשִׁיר אֶת שִׁיר ה’ עַל אַדְמַת נֵכָר – “How could we?! Will we be forced to play our sacred songs for our loathsome enemy, here, on alien soil?! Never!” As if on cue, they all bravely bit off their right thumbs and now were unable to play their instruments. They stuck out their hands and said, “Look at us! How can we play music if we can’t use our right hands?”

As we enter the week of Shiva Asar B’Tammuz and the beginning of the Bein Hametzarim – the three-week period of (music-less) mourning – Al Naharos Bavel may help give us that personal perspective we need in order to truly connect to the tragedies and subsequent sorrow to which we are meant to relate. For this we turn to composer Yitzchak and brothers Yossi and Boaz Goldshmid, the voices of Kol Achai, who, in 1990, debuted with the first of their four albums, Hallelu. Mellifluous, mournful minor chords interspersed with Eicha’s captivating cantillation, easily allows for this melancholy melody to take us back 2,445 years.

Kapittal 137: a prophetic scene that would sadly come to pass many years later. We were chased out of our homes and found ourselves weary, dragged to the very edge of the rivers of Babylon. There we sat, inconsolable in our pain, feeling utterly bereft. Al Naharos Bavel….

(With thanks to my son, Elazar נ”י for his inspiration and encouragement in writing this piece. Additional details adapted from Zecharya Hoffman’s “Song of Redemption” and Genendel Krohn’s “When We Left Yerushalayim.”)

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