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Thoughts on Eicha – The Book of Lamentations

 

This week, we come to the end of the three weeks, beinhametzarim, between the straits, the two fast days, that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, as we observe the major fast day of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av.  This fast, as I wrote there, commemoratesvarious tragedies in Jewish history, most notably the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, marking the end of the first Jewish commonwealth, and the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, ending the second commonwealth.  Rabbinic tradition also links it to the lost opportunity to enter the land of Canaan soon after the departure from Egypt due to the false report of the spies that Moses had sent into the land. In the Midrash, God sounds somewhat like the frustrated parent who tries to stop his child from crying by telling him, “I’ll give you something to cry about,” “Because you wept for no reason this night, I will give you reason to weep on this date in the future.” The Mishnah adds the defeat of the second revolt under Bar Kochba and the plowing over of Jerusalem to the list of sorrows on this date and later history adds more suffering to this unlucky date on the calendar.

 

As with most occasions, rabbis and poets throughout the ages have produced liturgical poems, in this case known as Kinot, elegies, describing and reacting to these and tovarious other tragedies in ancient times and in later periods of Jewish history as well, all linked to Tisha B’Av.  The most familiar text on this day, however, is the Book of Lamentations, known in Hebrew by its opening word, repeated as the opening of three of its five chapters, “Eicha” “How?” How could it happen?  How could it be?Alternatively, some translators take it not as a question, but as an exclamation, “How terrible!” The NJPS (the New Jewish Publications Society) goes with “Alas!”  This word “Eicha” appeared twice in our readings on the Shabbat prior to the fast, Shabbat Chazon, last Saturday.  In the Torah reading of Devarim, the opening section of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses recalls the need he felt to appoint officials and judges to assist him, “Eicha esa l’vaditorch’chem umasa’achem v’riv’chem.” “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you and the burden and the bickering?” In the haftarah taken from the opening chapter of Isaiah, we read the prophet’s indictment of the people of his time in the at the end of the 8th century BCE,, “Eichahay’tah l’zonah kiryah ne’emanah…” “How has she become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt – but now murderers.”  We chanted the haftarah of Shabbat Chazon to the same cantillation as we will use for Eicha itself.

 

In the book of Lamentations, we see the result, the punishment, for the corruption and crime of ancient Jerusalem in its opening words, “Eicha yashvah badad, ha-ir rabati am, hay’tah k’almanah…” “Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations has become like a widow.” Tradition both among Jews and Christians ascribes these laments to the prophet Jeremiah who lived at the time of the destruction.  In the Christian Bible, Lamentations appears right after Jeremiah.  However, modern scholars, though recognizing that these poems were most probably written by someone or some ones who witnessed these tragic events, they note that the language of Eichah differs greatly from the language of the prophet and question that identification of Jeremiah as the author.  As with many literary works the opinions differ as to whether we should consider these laments as a single work or if they were from the pens of more than one author.  One commentator suggests that even though they are not written as a continuous narrative, there seems to be a progression from one poem to the next in describing the horror of this calamity.

 

As we have seen with other biblical texts and with piyyutim that I have discussed, here too we find alphabetical acrostics used in four of the five chapters.  Chapters 1, 2, and 4, follow a single alphabetical acrostic, while in chapter 3, each letter in turn is given three short verses,totaling 66 verses.  While chapter 5 is not alphabetical, nonetheless it has the same number of verses, 22, as thenumber of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet.  In chapter 2, 3, and 4, there is a slight deviation from the standard order of the letters, preserved in chapter one.  The letter pay precedes the ayin.  It is uncertain if there is any significance to this, but no doubt there are commentators who have found one. In various places, we have seen that the use of the Hebrew alphabetic acrostic is intended to indicate that, while we cannot express everything we wish to convey, the use of the alphabet says that one might assume that we have experienced it all, from a to z, from aleph to tav. If I might attempt an interpretation of the reverse order of ayin and pay, we could note that “ayin” means an eye while “pay” is a mouth, the eye precedes the mouth this time.  The poet may be saying that one needs to have seen what took place, his mouth, his words,cannot begin to encompass the horror of what he has seen, of our experience of this calamity.

 

In the opening chapter, the author expresses a variety of emotions as he attempts to capture the feelings of this tragedy.  He recalls the past glory of Jerusalem, its splendor and delights.  He speaks of the crowded streets and the pilgrims coming up to the Temple with their offerings that he recalls.  Now, that is all gone, the city is desolate, the surviving people are starving and seeking something to eat.  At the same time, he is wracked with guilt, for he sees this as punishment by God for the many sins of the people. “Jerusalem has sinned a sin and therefore has become a pariah.” At the same time as headmits guilt, he berates her former allies who have deserted her at her time of need and mock her in her misfortune.  Acknowledging sin, he proclaims that God is righteous, a theme we express at funerals as well with the graveside prayer beginning “HaTzur tamim poalo,” The Rock (God) His ways are pure.  We call this TziddukHaDin, the justification of God’s judgment. Tears flow liberally in this poem and the poet cries out to God several times.

 

In the second chapter we begin, “Eicha, how has the Lord clouded over the daughter of Zion.  Eleven times in this chapter the poet uses the word “bat” daughter, daughter of Zion, daughter of Judah, daughter of Jerusalem, emphasizing this close, intimate relationship that had existed between God and the Jewish people.  Now, however, instead of speaking of outside enemies, he recognizes that they have made God Himself into an enemy through their sins.  They have broken the close relationship with God and suffered the consequences. The sages taught that we are indeed fortunate that God took out His wrath on bricks and mortar, destroying the Temple rather than wiping us out entirely.  In the first nine verses, we are given a detailed description of God’s fury and how it played out in this period of destruction.  Then the poetturns to the elders of the city, the young women, the children and attempts to offer comfort.  “What can I compare to you and console you…who can heal you?”  “Is this the city of which was said ‘the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth?”  “Pour out your heart like waterbefore the presence of the Lord. Raise your palms to him over the life of your babes faint with famine…see O Lord and look: to whom have You acted thus?”  He concludes with a gruesome description of the famine in the city leading to unspeakable acts of cannibalism which are mentioned again in chapter four and in the kinot poems recited on the morning of Tisha B’Av..

 

Chapter three, different in structure as mentioned, is mostly spoken in the first person.  Some commentators would suggest that this is the prophet Jeremiah speaking himself, though that is doubtful.  Nonetheless, it begins “Ani hagever ra’ah oni.”  I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His fury. He conducted and led me in darkness and not in light.”  We are given personal insight into the inner anguish of the speaker.  He tells us that his prayers are blocked.  He has become like a target for God’s punishment.  Still, he calls out, “Remember my affliction and my anguish.”  He declares even after speaking of his suffering that God is merciful and His kindnesses have not ceased.  He speaks of his trust in God. “The Lord is good to those who hope for Him, to the soul that seeks Him. It is good to await silently the salvation of God.” He proclaims, “Ulai yesh tikvah, perhaps there is hope.”  As he continues to speak of his faith, he goes on to recommend, “Let us search and examine our ways and return to the Lord.  Let us lift up our heart with our hands, to God in the heavens.”  He acknowledges his sins and pours out his tears, “I called upon Your name, Lord, from the depth of the pit.  You heard my voice, let Your ear not disregard my cry.” He concludes his prayer with a plea that God bring His punishment also upon the enemies “Pay their retribution according to their handiwork…May You pursue them in wrath and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord.”  I should mention that it is customary in some places to chant this chapter to a special melody rather than the Eicha melody that we usually hear.  

 

The verses in chapter four are shorter than the ones in chapters one and two, but once again we have the 22 verses in alphabetical order.  In this poem, the poet speaks of the people of Jerusalem once considered likegold and now tarnished by sin and suffering in the wake of the destruction.  He speaks of the compassion that mother birds and animals have for their young while condemning the conduct of his people, “they have become cruel.”  He describes in detail the horrible suffering during the famine that followed the siege and the destruction of the city.“those killed by the sword were better off than those killed by hunger.” Here he blames the catastrophe on the sins of false prophets and of corrupt priests.  He also casts blame upon the Edomites, the descendant of Jacob’s brother Esau, who did not come to the aid of their brothers, butmocked them as they were attacked.  He ends his short lament with the prayer, “Your iniquity is completed, daughter of Zion; He will not continue to exile you.  He reckons your iniquity daughter of Edom; He will expose your sins.”

 

The final chapter comprises 22 short verses, not in alphabetical order.  The author of this poem also speaks of the destruction and suffering of the people.  “Z’chorAdonay, meh hayah lanu, remember, O Lord, what befell us.” He goes on to describe the afflictions of the people and the unfaithfulness of their would-be allies.  “The gladness of our heart has ceased; our dance has been transformed into mourning, “ reversing the words of the Psalmist from Psalm 30, which we say every day, where he proclaims, “You have transformed my mourning into dancing.”  “The crown has fallen from our head, woe to us for we have sinned.  In spite of all the pain and anguish, the suffering described in this book, we conclude with words of hope, “You, Lord, are enthroned forever;  Yourthrone from generation to generation…Return us to You, Lord, and we will return, renew our days as of old.”  Even though the final verse goes back and says, “For You have despised us; You have been exceedingly angry with us.”  Our tradition requires us to end on a positive note and so, we repeat the previous very familiar verse, “HashiveinuAdonay elecha v’nashuva, chadeish yameinu k’kedem.” “Return us to You, Lord and we wlll return, renew our days as of old.”  It is customary for the congregation to repeat this verse after the reader.

 

While the narrative of this string of poems does not lead to a happy ending, we still end with hope and with a pledge of returning, repenting, renewing our days so that we might return to the picture of glory and faithful service that has been disrupted by this calamity.  The custom is to chant Eicha on the eve of Tisha B’Av, sitting in a somewhat darkened room, on the floor or low benches.  In some traditions, the book is read once again during the morning service as well.  I read a tradition cited by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik that they used to print Eicha and the Kinot prayers on small paper booklets, easily disposable, with the pious hope that next year, redemption will comeand we will no longer need to recite words of lamentation.  For the same reason, while in some places it is customary to read the megillot of Esther, Ruth, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes from a parchment scroll, we are reluctant to put the words of Eicha on parchment, to make them too permanent.

 

Our prayers are that we may merit seeing the full redemption of the world and the return of the Shechinah to Zion once more.

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