Mourning has fallen out of style in much of America. After someone close to you dies, you are allowed to act distraught until after the funeral, but then you are supposed to pull yourself together and assume a positive attitude. Treat that emptiness in your life with a new routine, an affirmation, an anti-depressant.
Jewish culture, however, remains more mourning-friendly. There are rituals for the first week, the first month, and the first eleven months after someone’s death. There is a specific prayer to say in the presence of other Jews on the anniversary of the death,1 and memorial services for everyone on four holidays during the year.2
All of these rituals and prayers require the presence of at least ten adults who stand or sit with the person who has been bereaved. Their witnessing presence provides some comfort and consolation; at least the survivor is not alone.
But what if there are millions of mourners observing the death of whole cities, nations, civilizations?
Once a year Jews dedicate a day to this kind of mourning: the fast day of Tisha Be-Av (the ninth day of the month of Av), which begins at sunset this Saturday.
Tisha Be-Av commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and by the Romans in 70 C.E. But it is not a day for mourning the end of temple worship and its animal sacrifices; most Jews prefer the rabbinic religion that evolved to replace it. Our mourning on Tisha Be-Av focuses on mass destruction, death, and exile from our homes. Over the centuries Jews have attached other vast tragedies to Tisha Be-Av, including the Spanish expulsion of Jews in the 1490’s and the Nazi genocide of Jews in the 1940’s.
On Tisha Be-Av Jews around the world gather not only to fast and pray together, but to read the book of Lamentations/ Eikhah3, five long poems mourning the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.. The book begins:
Oh, how can she sit alone,
The city [once] great with people?
She has become like a widow.
Great among nations,
A noblewoman among provinces,
She has become an unpaid laborer. (Lamentations/Eikhah 1:1)4
What does it mean to be like a widow? In the male-dominated society of the ancient Israelites, a woman depended on a man for food and shelter. If she did not have a father, husband, or son to provide for her, she was in a vulnerable position. Another male relative might take her in, or she might glean fields, like Ruth. She might sell herself as a slave, resort to prostitution, or depend on charity. The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim urges people eight times to feed the fatherless child and the widow.5
In Lamentations, Jerusalem is like a widow because she has lost not only her people, but also her wealth. It was standard practice in the ancient Near East for successful invaders to make the surviving natives do unpaid labor.6
She weeps and weeps through the night;
Her tears are on her cheek.
There are none menacheim her
Out of all who loved her.
All her friends have been faithless to her;
They have become like enemies to her. (Lamentations/Eikhah 1: 2)
menacheim (מְנַחֵם) = comforting, consoling; one who comforts or consoles. (A piel form of the verb nacham, נָחַם, which in the nifil form means a change of heart: either regret or consolation.)
Jerusalem’s lovers and friends in this verse are her erstwhile allies, particularly Egypt. The poet calls these allies faithless because they did not come to her aid when the Babylonian army attacked Judah and besieged its capital city.
Jerusalem weeps without consolation because the countries she expected to help her are absent. A real friend shows up and offers to help, but Jerusalem sits all alone.
Is God there? Yes, but this time God is allied with Jerusalem’s enemies. The book of Lamentations says repeatedly that God initiated the Babylonian conquest in order to punish Jerusalem for violating God’s laws.
“There are none menacheim her” becomes a refrain in the first poem of Lamentations, repeated in verses 1:9 and 1:17.
In verses 1:12-16, Jerusalem speaks for herself in the first person. She describes her suffering on God’s “day of wrath”, and blames God for the defeat of her men at the hands of the Babylonian army. Then she says:
Over these things I am weeping;
My eyes, my eyes flood with water.
Because distant from me is [any] menacheim
Who might restore my spirit. (Lamentations 1:16)
At the end of the first poem in Lamentations, Jerusalem addresses God directly:
They heard that I myself sighed:
“There are none menacheim me!”
All my enemies have heard of my evil fate.
They rejoice because you yourself did it!
You brought on the day you called for.
Then let them become like me!
Bring all their evil before yourself,
And inflict on them
What you have inflicted on me
For all my mutinies.
Because my groans are many
And my heart is sick. (Lamentations 1:21-22)
Here Jerusalem realizes that even though God permitted the Babylonian army to raze God’s temple, the Babylonians sinned when they did it. So she begs God to punish her human enemies the same way God punished her.
Perhaps she believes this rough justice would console her.
The subject of consolation comes up once more in the book of Lamentations, in the second poem. The speaker now is the poet, who describes God’s fury and the resulting destruction, then calls Jerusalem a virgin daughter rather than a promiscuous widow.
What can I compare to you va-anachameikh,
Virgin daughter of Zion?
For your shattering is as vast as the sea.
Who will heal you? (Lamentations 2:13)
va-anachameikh (וַאֲנַחֲמֵךְ) = and I comfort you (with)? (Another form of the verb nacham.)
According to Rashi,7 the poet wants to console Jerusalem by telling her that something just as bad happened to another city, another people. But no sufficiently horrible example comes to mind.
The question “Who will heal you?” hangs unanswered. The Babylonians could rebuild the walls and the houses, and erect their own temple. But who will heal the people of Jerusalem?
Eikhah Rabbah, a Talmudic-era collection of commentary on Lamentations, suggests that God will. After all, God split the Reed Sea to let the Israelites pass through on dry land when they were fleeing the Egyptian army. Then God healed the breach in the water, destroying the enemy.8 Since God created miracles that helped the Israelites in the past, then someday, after God’s rage is spent, God will save them again.
In the second book of Isaiah, God declares: “I, I am the one menacheim you!” (Isaiah 51:12)
The book of Lamentations is only one of many biblical texts that view God as an omnipotent father with an anger management problem. Those who believe in that particular anthropomorphic version of God often blame themselves for disasters, since anything is better than accusing their father-figure God of injustice. And if they are very, very good, Daddy will forgive them and comfort them.
I believe we humans must comfort one another, if only by acknowledging one another’s losses as real.
But perhaps ultimately, comfort and consolation can only come from God—either through a fortunate change in circumstances beyond our control, or through the divine spirit that lives within us.
- The Mourner’s Kaddish, in Aramaic, a part of every prayer service.
- Yizkor services on Passover/Pesach, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret.
- Lamentations begins with the Hebrew word eikhah, which here means: “Oh, how can it be?” See my post Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation.
- Although most of the poetry in Lamentations falls into couplets, I follow Robert Alter in dividing the first verse into triplets and retaining the order of the original Hebrew phrases. (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 3, The Writings, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019)
- Deuteronomy 14:29, 16:11, 16:14, 24:19, 24:20, 24:21, 26:12-13, 27:19.
- Deuteronomy 20:10-14 instructs the Israelites that if a foreign town surrenders to them immediately, they must impose forced labor on the residents. But if the town does not surrender until after the Israelites have besieged it, they must kill all the men and take the women and children as booty. The Babylonians, however, ended their siege of Jerusalem by deporting Israelite men who were skilled or educated, along with their families, to enclaves in Babylon. Their usual policy was to assign unpaid labor to any remaining residents of a conquered city.
- 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
- Eikhah Rabbah 2:17, sefaria.org.