Kol Isha: A voice from the end of the world

The pain that sexual consummation and divorce entail is uniquely felt by a woman. Yet her pain is never heard.

According to the midrash, six moments release a voice that travels from one end of the earth to the other and is never heard: (1) when they fell a fruit-bearing tree; (2) when a snake sloughs off its skin; (3) when a woman is divorced from her husband; (4) when a woman first has relations with her husband; (5) when an infant leaves the womb; and (6) when the soul leaves the body. "And the soul does not leave the body until it has seen the Divine Presence, as it is said, 'For no man shall see Me and live'" (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 34). The idea that there is a "voice... not heard" is essentially an oxymoron. How could a voice, carried as waves upon the air, scientifically measured in decibels, not be heard? Beyond sensory experience, intangible, the voice is released at such moments of intense emotional anguish that it eludes articulation. With respect to the four human phenomena, both poles of life and death are tapped like a tuning fork, releasing that inaudible voice. All entail some sort of severance. The woman, in her first relations with her husband, is torn from her autonomy as a virgin, represented by the rupture of the hymen. In divorce, she is torn from the state of being a merged as a couple, which marriage entails (cf. Gen. 2:24). Interestingly, the pain that sexual consummation and divorce entail is uniquely felt by a woman. Yet her pain is never heard. Birth and death, however, are not gender-bound. The inaudible voice at birth is released not by the mother. Rather, it is the newborn that feels the loss of the primal union, the bliss of amniotic suspension. The separation of the soul from the body also invokes a cosmic severance; and yet it is the one transcendent moment in which a human experiences the Divine Presence. The midrash quotes: "And no man shall see Me and live" (Exodus 33:22), but at the moment of death, a human being may see. The paradox is represented by the voice that travels from one end of the earth to the other and is never heard. But what of the image of the fruit-bearing tree when felled, or the molting snake? Neither tree nor snake is a neutral symbol; rather each harks back to the original, pre-lapsarian state in the Garden of Eden. According to another midrash, the primordial serpent once had arms and legs, and when it was cursed, the ministering angels descended from heaven to cut off its limbs, and its cry traveled from one end of the world to the other (Genesis Raba 20:5, cf. Gen. 3:14). God then decreed that all snakes would molt once every seven years, in great pain, releasing that same primordial voice that would travel from one end of the world to the other, yet not be heard (PRE 14). The Tree of Knowledge, which bore that fatal fruit, also had a voice that was never heard. To the command, "Do not eat of the tree... [or] you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17), Eve added the prohibition not to touch it (3:2). This provided the loophole for the conniving serpent, "who went and touched the tree. And the tree cried out, 'Evil one, do not touch me,'... The snake then went and said to the woman, 'See, I touched the tree and did not die, so you too can touch it and not die'" (PRE 13). The tree calls out, ostensibly to warn the woman of immanent danger. But its cry falls upon deaf ears, or perhaps its cry was never heard at all. This is the cry Eve cannot utter, mute witness to the shaking of the trunk, leaves, branches, falling fruit. Once the tree is shaken, Eve has already tasted the forbidden with her eyes: "And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes..." (Genesis 3:6). Her eyes then lead to her hand, then lead to her mouth. And she enjoins Adam in the dance toward "knowing good and evil," mortal beings destined for dust, conscious of the immanence of their own death. The voice that is released and travels to the ends of the world expresses a yearning, a desire to return to that primal union, represented by the Garden of Eden. Yet the voice is never heard. How then could the author of the midrash have heard? Perhaps we, despite being confined to the world of five senses, are aware of the voice through a "sixth sense"? In longing to return to the garden, "to till it and watch over it" (Gen. 2:15), we too resonate with the voice, echoes of yearning in this universe. The writer lectures in Hebrew Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies, in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.