Tonight, when Tisha b'Av begins, we'll read Eicha, the book of Lamentations -- what Shaye Cohen has called "the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present, and future."
The authorship of Eicha isn't definitively known. We know that in 586 B.C.E when the first Temple fell, only ten percent of the Israelite community (the elite) was exiled. We know that they took the implements of the Temple with them, but did not build a new Temple in Babylon. They began instead to develop services and prayers which could exist independent of Temple sacrifice -- to turn a national identity into a religion, to shift focus from a place which could be destroyed to a story which we carry in our heads and hearts.
(After the Babylonian exile ended, historians tell us, again only ten percent of the community picked up and moved; 90 percent remained in Babylon. Those who returned to Jerusalem were restorationists, invested in rebuilding what had gone before. What they had lost.)
The tradition tells us that Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) was the author of Eicha. We know he wrote other kinnot (songs of lamentation), including one about the death of King Josiah. We know that he stayed in the land when the Temple fell, and Eicha seems to be spoken in the voice of someone who stayed behind. Scholarship today suggests that Eicha is actually five separate poems stitched together, and that each chapter was written by a different poet.
For those of us who will be reading Eicha tonight and tomorrow, I offer the following set of questions. (Reb Laura brought these to our theodicy class, and the process of working through them was really valuable for me.) As you read each chapter of the poem, consider: how would you characterize the speaker(s)? What aspect of the catastrophe does the speaker emphasize? Who does the speaker blame? What stance does the speaker take towards God? And what are your reactions to the speaker's views -- how does each section of the poem make you feel?
The first chapter seems to be spoken by a Jerusalemite, or maybe by the city herself. The second chapter, by someone empathic, maybe a woman. (Some truly devastating images of suffering children.) The third, by a man of elevated status. The fourth, by someone who might have a class agenda for judging the exile. And the fifth, by a second generation survivor, someone who's just beginning to untangle the damage of the exile and the Temple's fall.
The poem offers us different images and areas of focus in turn. A snapshot of the devastation of the city, questions about the role of God in the destruction, a sense of the need to accept or move through suffering without losing one's relationship with God, a description of how the high have been brought low, and a series of desperate questions for which there may not be answers. The text blames the devastation on our own transgressions, external enemies, even God. By turns, it beseeches God to strike down our enemies, and begs our own community to make teshuvah. This is a beautiful, striking, and complicated piece of poetry.
So many of our sacred texts have the most important piece right in the middle. As though the words and verses surrounding it were a cradle, a nest -- or rays of light radiating out from what we hold most dear. For this reason the traditional understanding holds that Leviticus is the most important book in Torah (some say, further, that the verse "v'ahavta l'reacha camocha," "and you shall love your neighbor, your Other, as yourself," is near-enough to the center of Leviticus to be the heart of the heart, the textual holy of holies.) The Torah has a chiastic structure, in other words -- the climax is in the middle. Just so, the book of Eicha.
Chapter 3 of Eicha holds the whole poem in balance. It takes us through the stages of grief, and offers a model for dealing with suffering. It provides a range of responses to suffering and to pain, and insight into the destructiveness of even righteous anger. Along with chapters 1, 2, and 4 it's written in acrostic form, א to ת, some say because our sins spanned the spectrum -- and, others note, to suggest that even the whole alef-bet can't contain suffering or loss. In chapter 3 I find a strong example of what the Hasidic tradition calls "arousal from below" -- we suffer, we cry out, and that cry arouses God's help. Even though we suffer, it's incumbent upon us to turn to God with our whole hearts.
Reading Eicha raises the question of whether suffering is meaningless, or whether it can become redemptive. It's an enormous question, and not one with an easy answer. Maybe suffering can become redemptive when we build relationships around and through it; when it helps us relate to one another and to God.
For me, the most valuable thing about reading Eicha is how our tradition handles the end of the text. The last line is dark and pretty miserable, so what do we do? After we read the end, we return and repeat the penultimate line, in order to find hope. Return us to You, God, and we shall return; renew our days as of old. That's the final message we take away, the verse that rings in our ears.
This is a text of trauma, and the end of the megillah is only the very beginning of healing the religion from the loss it describes. Rupture leaves an indelible mark, which forces over time a kind of renewal. Poetry is one of the ways that humanity has always dealt with catastrophe; by reading and studying this poem, today and tomorrow, we place ourselves in the shoes of the Israelites who lost the city -- the Temple -- the central point of connection with God. We feel that pain, and we mourn.
For me, that process is incomplete unless it also impels us to ask: who mourns today from this kind of loss? Who weeps now, imagining the very roads of home in mourning, desecrated and invaded, old friends and strangers alike bartering their treasures for food, children dead or enslaved? How can we obligate ourselves to really recognize the breadth and depth of suffering, in the many war-torn and damaged places of our world, and what can we do toward alleviating the suffering and healing the grief? How are we culpable, and how can we make teshuvah and begin the work of renewal and repair?