Yagon: Sorrow in Exile

SORROW: yagon (masculine noun). (Strong’s 3015).

Root: יָגוֹן

Sounds like: ya-gohn. 

The Hebrew word yagon is most often translated as sorrow, and sometimes grief. It is a fitting word for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Many of us will see the hashtag #WeRemember as we scroll through social media today. And although we did not personally experience the holocaust it is very important that we recall the event so that it never happens again. We need to remember that millions of people were exiled out of their homes and sent to death camps. These exiles were mostly Jews, but also consisted of political dissidents, the mentally ill, gypsies, homosexuals, the physically disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and (what the Nazi party termed) “asocials”, which included substance abusers, prostitutes, beggars and pacifists.

This was a terribly dark moment in human history of Biblical-esque proportions. Jews, at the time, rightfully felt they were living a nightmare. It was like they were thrown back to the days of the Babylonian exile, when they were ripped out of their homes and dragged away to the land of their enemies. They lost everything- lives, homes, identity, language, culture, pride, hope.

Sorrow in Exile

In their great suffering many Jewish holocaust victims may have turned to the exile poetry found in the Bible. With its focus on sorrow it would most certainly have felt very applicable:

Psalm 31:9-10

Be gracious to me, O YHWH, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also.

For my life is spent with sorrow [b’yagon], and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.

For the people in exile, and the people in the concentration camps, there was no comfort to lift them out of sorrow, no glimmer of hope:

Jeremiah 8:18-19a

Oh that I could comfort myself against sorrow [yagon]! My heart is faint within me. Behold, the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people from a land that is very far off: is not YHWH in Zion? is not her King in her?

Many would have questioned their very existence:

Jeremiah 20:18

Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow [w’yagon]and spend my days in shame?

Many would have cried out to YHWH:

Psalm 13:1-2a 

How long, O YHWH? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long must I wrestle in my soul, with sorrow [yagon] in my heart each day?

thesurvivor-gsegal
“The Survivor” (Artist: George Segal)

In the Tanakh the prophets provided glimmers of hope to those facing the threat of the Assyrians and, later, the Babylonians. These same prophetic words would have also offered hope to the Jewish victims of the holocaust:

Isaiah 51:11

So the ransomed of YHWH will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, and everlasting joy will be on their heads. They will obtain gladness and joy. Sorrow [yagon] and sighing will flee away.

It may have felt like a small consolation at the time, but within only a few years of the dissolution of the concentration camps “the ransomed of YHWH” would be able to return to Zion! Not since 70 CE had Israel been an official nation for the Jewish people. God heard their prayers during their great sorrow and led them out of exile and back home. On 14 May 1948 the Jewish nation of Israel was restored.

Jeremiah 31:13

Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joyI will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow [m’y’gon-am].

The threat of genocide, for the Jews, was not a new concept in the 1930’s-40’s. This was not the first time their mass murder was planned. After the fall of the Babylonian empire, the Jews found themselves under the dominance of the Medes and Persians. During this time there was the threat of a planned Jewish genocide. The Book of Esther tell us this story. With the intelligent and diplomatic skills of Queen Esther (a Jewish woman married to the king of the Persians) the plan of a Jewish genocide was wiped out. Today the Jewish people remember this moment in history with the celebration of Purim:

Esther 9:20-22

And Mordecai [Esther’s uncle] recorded these things and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, obliging them to keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same, year by year, as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow [mi-yagon] into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor.

The Jewish people, in the days of Esther and Mordecai, were called to remember how close they came to total destruction, and how, by the grace of God, they survived. But this was not the last time that someone wanted to destroy them. They faced a similar threat under the Seleucid Empire, where they were given the choice between forced conversion or death. The resulting Maccabean Revolt essentially stopped the complete extinction of the Jewish faith.

During the Middle Ages, in Europe, the Jews became scapegoats and were charged with deicide for the killing of Jesus. Many were murdered or, at the very least, expelled from the lands they had called home for centuries. The Rhineland Massacre (1096) during the First Crusade was just one of many deadly events for the Jewish people.

Throughout history there have been numerous brutal anti-semetic attacks: the Khmelnytsky Uprising of the 17th Century, the Massacre of Uman in 18th Century Imperial Russia, and the Hep-Hep Riots of the 19th Century, to name a few.

In the 20th Century the violent and deadly pogroms (including Odessa, Kishinev, the Lemberg Massacre, and Kristallnacht) stretched across Eastern Europe, primarily, but not exclusively, in Ukraine, Russia and Poland. The Holocaust of World War II is only one event in a long line of racism and terror inflicted on the Jewish people.

Turning your Sorrow into Joy

However, sorrow is not exclusive. Many of us also have experienced, or are experiencing, great sorrow, in our own personal lives. Many of us have suffered terribly in silence.

Yeshua also suffered great sorrow and grief. To know his own fate, that he would be mocked and beaten and nailed to a cross, would have been a terrifying load to bear. In his distress he tried to share his feelings of sorrow with his closest friends:

Matthew 26:36-40

At that time Jesus went with His disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and He told them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”

He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee and began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is consumed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with Me.”

Going a little farther, He fell face-down and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

Then Jesus returned to the disciples and found them sleeping. Were you not able to keep watch with Me for one hour?” He asked Peter.

Jesus felt so much sorrow and agony that he thought he might die right then and there! How many of us have felt great sorrow and turned to our friends or family, only to find that they were not there when we needed them. But there is one who is always there for us… the One who saves us:

Psalm 116:1-9

I love YHWH, because He hears my voice and my supplications. Because He has inclined His ear to me, therefore I shall call upon Him as long as I live.

The cords of death encompassed me and the terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow [w’yagon].

Then I called upon the name of YHWH:  “O YHWH, I beseech You, save my life!

Gracious is YHWH, and righteous; Yes, our God is compassionate. YHWH preserves the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me.

Return to your rest, O my soul, for YHWH has dealt bountifully with you. For You have rescued my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I shall walk before YHWH in the land of the living.

In your sorrow there is hope. When you feel despair do not suffer in silence. Call on your family and your friends. Reach out to your medical care-givers. Speak with people. Communicate and connect… shout from the roof-tops, if you have to. But also, remember to call on YHWH. He is full of compassion and He will help you walk tall in the land of the living. YHWH, more than any human, can turn your sorrow into joy!

Next week: Silence

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