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Lamah? - For What Purpose? 

Visual response to Facing the Unbearable, class 2 of Rafa Na: Grief and Loss taught by Rabbi Ami Silver. 

This week’s text and discussion about facing the unbearable centred around the teachings about Sarah's death and its juxtaposition after the akedah by Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (the Piaseczner Rebbe ) who wrote from the Warsaw Ghetto immediately following tragic losses of his beloved son, as well as many others in his core family group.

The word that kept coming up for me was  Lamah/Why? For what purpose?

Why is suffering so encoding into this world?

If God is in everything, and suffering is part of the ‘everything’, then is there something in suffering that in itself is a reflection of the sacred, and therefore part of what we praise and lift up?

That last question is hugely confronting.

Hebrew gives us two “why” words.

Madua, whose root it shares with da’at/knowledge/understanding/consciousness, can be thought of as the “from what knowledge” version of “why”. The intellectual “why”. 

By contrast, lamah, literally “for what”, is a much more existential “why” - the why that remains regardless of the answers for who, what, where, when, how, the “why” that comes from the place of hod, the place of both deep acknowledged joy and deep submission, the “why” that contains both descent and ascent, anguish and joy, the “why” of not necessarily knowing an answer. 

Can we go deeper into lamah by experiencing the sound of the word itself, by intoning the vibration of the letters? I think so.

Hebrew is a vibratory language and its building blocks, the otiot/letters/signs, are redolent with meaning and potential. There is a rich tradition, both text and mystery based, around the letters. There is significance in their form, in the choreography of the mouth as they are sounded, in their creative spiritual possibility and in their numerological equivalence. And, given the creative promise of each individual letter, it follows that words of similar letters entrain in the same harmonic resonance. More on that later.

The word lamah/why uses the following letters:



Hei/(a sound pared back to an outbreath) h/ה

Lamed stands tall, towering over the other letters, leading, or shepherding the others like the prod/staff it is named after. This is the letter of flow, of teaching and learning from the aspiring heart, of drawing down and being open to receive. In sounding the lamed, the tongue lifts up and draws down sound. It is no wonder that we praise God with lamed when we lift up our Halleluyahs. Lamed is the letter of ululation - an expression of either deep grief or ecstatic joy. Lamed is 30 - 30 days of the fertile moon cycle to which so much entrains.

Mother letter mem is the watery murmur of satisfaction. Its form suggests the combination of both heaven (jutting upwards) and earth (opening at the bottom). The mem is considered the fountain of wisdom. As water from a spring comes from an unknown subterranean source, so does the fountain of wisdom express the power of flow from the superconscious source. Mem connotes 40 - a complete transformative cycle - forty days of flood, 40 seahs of water for a mikvah, 40 years of desert wandering, 40 days of forgiveness on Mount Sinai. Mem is sounded by plumbing the depths, closed lips, a deeply satisfyingly internal affirmation.

Hei, the fifth letter, is the experience of the out breath. It links us to the first breath of creation, the one that moves through us still, the one that animated Adam. The hei is about breath and expression. Both connect the physical world with the other three planes. Its form features a broken unattached foot through which the breath of life can flow. It is represented twice in the holiest of the Divine names. Its number is five - the five origins of speech in the mouth, the five fingers of the hand, the five levels of the soul, the five books of Torah.

Here are some other lamed/mem/hei words. To me they are all energetically and symbolically related.

Mahallal/מהלל is from the praise family of words. Moheil/ מהל, the person who performs the circumcision.

Other words using those same root letters include המל, which means to rain steadily/shed tears/the rushing or roaring sound of tumult (such as the sound of the wings of the living creatures in Ezekiel’s vision), הלם/halam/to smite or strike down/the impression on a coin and יהלם/yahalom, a very hard stone that can be struck - jasper or onyx. The word מילה /milah means both “circumcision” and “word”, the same three root letters with the added divinely potent yud/10. Circumcision  is about literally or metaphorically cutting away the extraneous to reveal the essence. Produced by our breath and our physical bodies, a word is the smallest unit of tangible creation, the first indicator of concretion in olam hazeh/this world.

I have often laboured under the expectation that we are supposed to bear suffering, that we are only ever meted out what we can deal with.  But the example of the Piaseczner Rebbe gives us a much more humane and realistic template. He could both dance with joy on Simchat Torah, and honour his raw and recent unbearable loss (something that he said deadened and defeated him) at the same time. And he was able to do that because of the example set by the death of Sarah. His teaching on Chayei Sarah gives us permission to grieve, to rail against circumstances, to vent our frustration at not having all the answers, to question God (after all, we do come from a line of God questionners!!). It gives us permission to wail “lamah?” without actually expecting an answer.

And in thinking of Sarah's death from heartbreak, I also think of two other great "whys" of Torah. Rebecca's cry of anguish about life's purpose given all suffering of her pregnancy, and then later, Aaron's silent "why" on the fiery death of his two sons. (At least, I imagine that is his response as he doesn't say anything at all).

All three responses - Sarah's death (or something dying inside us), our cries of lamah/why (Rebecca) and our self-censoring expression of pain to great to articulate (Aaron) give me three very human templates in the face of the unbearable.

Lamah/Why?For What Purpose? is a mixed media collage incorporating my inked calligraphy, Industrial Zone papers and embellishments from 13@arts, Hebrew letter stamps, miscellaneous charms and ephemera (including a glass vial of Murray River salt) from my own collection. The Hebrew text panel is a copy of the Rebbe’s hand written  Chayei Sarah musings, found, more than a decade after his murder, buried in a milk can.

(As an aside, I included the salt (melach/מלח) because I originally thought it had the same three letters. While its chet is similar in form to the hei, salt is both absolutely vital to our survival in incarnated form, and is associated with tears, our essential expression as humans, the tears that flow in the  lamah state.


Chana-Toni Whitmont is a collage artist, crystal sound practitioner, creative, teacher and student whose practice and passions are born from her spiritual connection to her Jewish lineage and the ebbs and flows in the annual calendar cycle. She lives on magnificent Bidjigal, Birrabirragal and Gadigal Country (also known as Bondi), on the Pacific coast of Australia.


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