Lamentations: Seeking Comfort

Sorrowing Old Man, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

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.

Mourning Day, by Jan Voerman, 1864

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.

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt, 1630

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.

  1. The Mourner’s Kaddish, in Aramaic, a part of every prayer service.
  2. Yizkor services on Passover/Pesach, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret.
  3. Lamentations begins with the Hebrew word eikhah, which here means: “Oh, how can it be?” See my post Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation.
  4. 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)
  5. Deuteronomy 14:29, 16:11, 16:14, 24:19, 24:20, 24:21, 26:12-13, 27:19.
  6. 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.
  7. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  8. Eikhah Rabbah 2:17, sefaria.org.

 

Lamentations, Va-etchannan, & Vayeishev: The Pit

Dig a deep hole in the ground and you have a pit, a bor in Hebrew.  In the bible you can use it as a dungeon, or line it with cement and use it as a cistern to store water. A bor is also part of the underworld where the souls of the dead go.

Roman Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

This Sunday is Tisha B’Av, the annual Jewish day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple—both the first temple, razed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and the second temple, razed by the Romans in 70 C.E.  On Tisha B’Av it is customary to read the book of Lamentations/Eykhah, a series of five poems which mourn the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army.

The first poem opens with the word Eykhah (“How can it be?”)1 and expresses the desolation of the ruins of Jerusalem.  The second poem, which also begins Eykhah, calls the destruction “the day of God’s wrath” over the misdeeds of Jerusalem’s people.  The fourth and fifth poems combine the two themes, with emphasis on starvation and being at the mercy of the enemy.

The third poem, however, reads like one of the personal psalms in which the ancient poets feel as if they are near death, and plead with God to bring them back to life and take vengeance against their enemies.2  Only in verse 40 does the third poem of Lamentations switch from “I” to “we”, urging all the people of Jerusalem to plead with God for forgiveness and rescue.

     Let us check on our ways and cross-examine [ourselves], and turn back to God!  (Lamentations 3:40)3

The first person singular returns with:

     Streams of water go down from my eyes over the shattering of my people.  (Lamentations 3:48)

Shortly after that, the narrator, identifying with Jerusalem, claims that the Babylonians did not actually need the city.

     My enemies actually hunted me like a bird, for no reason.

     They silenced my life in the bor, and in their hand was a stone against me.

     The waters rose over my head.  I thought: “I am ended!”

     I called your name, God, from the bottom of the bor.

     May you hear my voice!  Do not shut your ear to my spirit, to my cry for help!  (Lamentations/Eykhah 3:52-56)

bor (בּוֹר) = a pit; a cistern, a dungeon, a synonym for Sheol.

Here the bor is not a physical cistern or dungeon, but a poetic image for Sheol, the underworld of the souls of the dead.  Bor is used at least 21 times in the Hebrew Bible to indicate either Sheol or the lowest region of Sheol, but this is the only such reference that includes water.  Souls never drown after they are dead in ancient Hebrew mythology.  Thus the narrator of this poem is not dead, but despairing of life.  The poet uses the images of both stone and water, comparing the bor of Sheol to a cistern filling up with water.

The narrator, like all the citizens of defeated Jerusalem, is trapped—unable to float to the surface and escape.

A full cistern

Next week Jews read from Va-etchanan (“And I implored”), the second Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.  In this portion cisterns are listed as assets that the Israelites will enjoy once they conquer the land of Canaan:

… cities big and good that you did not build, and houses filled with everything good that you did not fill, excavated borot that you did not excavate, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.  And you will eat and you will be satisfied.  [Then] take heed, lest you forget God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

borot (בֺּרוֹת) = plural of bor.

How lovely to move into a land already dotted with cisterns that collect and store water for the dry season!  Moses reminds his people not to take the cisterns for granted, since they did not excavate them.  Canaanites dug them, and the Israelites will conquer Canaan only with God’s help.4

The books of Exodus through Joshua treat the conquest of Canaan as an unmitigated good, since it results in fertile land for the Israelites, not to mention pre-existing amenities such as cities, houses, and cisterns.  The bible does not consider the Canaanite point of view.

But I can imagine poets from the various conquered peoples of Canaan writing laments after the Israelites besiege and loot their cities, destroy their temples, and kill many of their people.  The conquest of Canaan by the Israelites under Joshua is the same story as the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar; only the names and dates change.

An empty cistern

Cisterns holding water are mentioned twelve times in the Hebrew Bible.  Dry cisterns and dry pits are mentioned at least 31 times.  They serve as hiding places,5 a warrior throws bodies of the slain into them,6 and large animals fall in.7  Psalm 7:16 refers to a man falling into a pit he dug himself, a fine image of being caught in your own trap.8

Since the walls of an empty cistern are covered with cement, they do not provide handholds for a human to climb out.  The only escape is for someone at the top to throw you a rope.

At least thirteen times the bible mentions a dry bor, it was  excavated to serve as a dungeon.  Five times in Genesis, in the portion Vayeishev (“And he settled”), the bor is an empty cistern that Joseph’s older brothers use as an ad-hoc prison.

They see Joseph coming up the road to check on them, and they know he will give a negative report to their father, as usual.

Joseph pulled up from the pit, by James J.J. Tissot

And they said, each man to his brother: “Hey!  Here comes the master of dreams!  And now let’s go murder him, and let’s throw him into one of the borot, and we can say a wicked beast ate him.  Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams!”    And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into this bor that is in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and return him to his father.  And it happened when Joseph came up to his brothers.  They stripped his tunic off Joseph, the fancy tunic that he had on, and they took him and threw him into the bor.  And there was no water; the bor was empty. (Genesis 37:20-24)

It would take about two weeks for a healthy adolescent like Joseph to die of dehydration at the bottom of the pit, less if there were no shade.  Before Reuben can return with a rope to rescue him, Judah sells Joseph to a caravan.  The traders pull him up out of the bor and take him to Egypt as a slave.

*

A deep hole in the ground is beneficial when it becomes a cistern full of water, or the basement of a building.9  But when it is used as a dungeon, the captive will die unless given food and water.  A prisoner in a dungeon can hope for a reprieve or a rescue, but if the bor is Sheol you can only be saved if God heeds your prayer as you go down.  There is no life after death in that bor; at best the disembodied souls lie in eternal sleep.10

Today, when we are depressed we feel “down”, trapped in a mysterious place without life or meaning.  In English we call it “a pit of despair”.

May everyone who sinks into a pit find a way to cry out for help and be rescued, whether the rescuer is a fellow human being or the voice of God within.

  1. See my post Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation.
  2. g. Psalms 28, 30 and 88, all of which mention bor as a synonym for Sheol.
  3. Since the poem is an acrostic, verse 40 must begin with the letter nun, נ. When the prefix nun is attached to verbs in the perfect tense, it indicates the second person plural.  However, the prefix nun can also be used to indicate the simple passive (nifal) verb stem, and there are many other words that begin with a nun, so switching to the second person plural for a word beginning with nun is a deliberate choice on the part of the poet.
  4. See my post Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?
  5. 1 Samuel 13:6, 1 Chronicles 11:17-18, and Proverbs 28:17.
  6. Jeremiah 41:7-9 and 1 Chronicles 11:17-18.
  7. Exodus 21:33-34, 2 Samuel 23:20, and 1 Chronicles 11:22.
  8. Psalm 7:16.
  9. The word bor is not used for a basement in the bible; the substructure of a building is called a yesod (יְסוֹד) = foundation, base.
  10. Unless they are disturbed by a diviner such as the witch of Endor, who summons the ghost of Samuel to speak briefly with King Saul in 1 Samuel 28:7-20.

Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation

Eykhah (אֵיכָה) = Oh, how?  Oh, where?  Oh, how can it be?  (Ten of the nineteen occurrences of eykhah in the Hebrew Bible are in rhetorical questions that express despair or desperation.1)

The first appearance of the word eykhah in the  bible is in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim.2  Eykhah also appears in the accompanying haftarah reading from first Isaiah, and in the book of Lamentations, which we read next week during the fast of Tisha B’Av.  (In 2020 we read the Torah portion Devarim during the week ending this Saturday, July 25, and observe Tisha B’Av beginning Wednesday evening, July 29.)

Deuteronomy

Moses, by Ivan Mestrovic,1934, bronze

The book of Deuteronomy (also called Devarim in Hebrew) is a long series of speeches that Moses delivers on the bank of the Jordan before he dies and the other Israelites cross over to conquer Canaan.  Some of his speeches outline God’s laws and others relate what Moses remembers happening on the 40-year journey from Egypt.1

Moses’ first recollection begins with God telling the Israelites to leave Mount Horeb (elsewhere called Mount Sinai) and go to Canaan to take possession of the land.  Moses says:

Then I spoke to you at that time, saying: “I am not able to carry you by myself!  God, your God, has multiplied you, and here you are today like the stars of the heavens in multitude …  Eykhah can I handle by myself alone your load and your burden and your disputing?  Bring men of wisdom and discernment and knowledge from among yourselves to your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:9-10, 12-13)

Here the word eykhah begins a cry of desperation expressing Moses’ memory of how overwhelmed he was.

Isaiah

This week’s haftarah reading from first Isaiah4 rails against the immorality of the people of Jerusalem in the 8th century B.C.E.  The prophet cries out:

Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

     Eykhah she has become a prostitute,

     The [once] faithful city

     Filled with justice?

     The righteous used to linger in her,

     But now—murderers.  (Isaiah 1:21)

When Isaiah asks “Eykhah (How can it be?) she has become a prostitute, the [once] faithful city?”, it is a prophet’s cry of desperation, both exclaiming over how far the city of Jerusalem has fallen and sounding the alarm that its residents must change or else.  Isaiah can imagine a reversal of the immoral behavior of the Israelites, but he is afraid they will not cooperate until God smites the evil-doers.

Lamentations

Eykhah appears four times in the book of Lamentations, which we read next week.5  In fact, Lamentations is called Eykhah in Hebrew because that is the first word in the book.  Tisha B’Av, the day next week dedicated to remembering the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, includes fasting and reading the book of Lamentations/Eykhah.

By the Rivers of Babylon, by Gebhard Fugel, ca. 1920

This book is set in a time shortly after the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and its first Jewish temple in 587 B.C.E.  It opens with this rhetorical question:

      Eykhah the city sits alone,

     Once teeming with people?

     She has become like a widow,

     Once great among the nations.

     A princess among the provinces,

     She has become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

Here the poet6 utters a cry of despair over how the city of Jerusalem has changed from an important metropolis to a hillside of ruins.  Eykhah, how can it be?

The second chapter also begins with a rhetorical question:

Eykhah God, in his wrath, concealed in a cloud

The daughter of Zion?

Cast down from heaven to earth,

The splendor of Israel?

Did not remember his footstool

On his day of wrath?  (Lamentations 2:1)

This time the word eykhah expresses the poet’s despair over the nature of God, who exalted Jerusalem with splendor and chose the city as God’s footstool or resting place—and then in a fit of anger cast it down and made it disappear.  How could God do such a thing?

*

“Oh how can it be that the city sits alone?” we read in Lamentations on the fast of Tisha B’Av.  “Oh how can God forget God’s footstool on a day of wrath?”  Now all the people of the world might ask: “Oh how can God abandon us to this pandemic, letting the innocent die along with the guilty?”

What if we ask ourselves: “How can I grow out of my belief in a god who is a parent, either loving or abusive?  How can I stop blaming God and accept what is beyond my control?  And how can I take responsibility for what is within my reach?”

Oh how can the once faithful city have become a prostitute?” Isaiah asks in this week’s haftarah reading.  Now Americans might ask: “Oh how can our once responsible national government have become devoted to stroking the ego of a megalomaniac?”

What if we ask ourselves: “How can we restore a government devoted to saving lives and helping all of its citizens?”

“Oh how can I handle by myself alone your load and your burden and your disputing?” Moses asks in this week’s Torah portion.  Now, in the Covid-19 pandemic, we might ask: “Oh how can I handle by myself taking care of the kids without a single break, without a summer program or a class or a play group?  How can I handle the dangers of going to work, or the dangers of a simple trip to the grocery store?”  The burden can indeed be too much for one person, alone.

What if those of us who are not as overwhelmed ask ourselves: “How can I help my neighbor or my friend and safely lighten their burden?”

  1. Other Hebrew words that can be translated as “how” include eykh (אֵיךְ), which begins a rhetorical question in two of its three appearances in the bible; eikhakha (אֵכָכָה), used rhetorically in all three of its appearances; ey (אֵי), which usually means “where” but is used once as a rhetorical “how”; and mah (מַה), which usually means “what” but is used twice as a rhetorical “how”. But none of these words are used as an “Oh, how could it happen?” beginning a lament.
  2. The word God calls out in Genesis 3:9 when Adam and Eve are hiding in the garden is ayekha (אַיֶּכָּה). Although this word is spelled with the same letters as eykhah, the vowel pointing indicates that the word is actually ayeh (אַיֵּה) = where, with the suffix cha (כָּה) = you. Thus ayekha means “Where are you?”
  3. Moses’ memory is not always accurate, and sometimes the way he tells the story is self-serving. See my post Devarim: In God We Trust? Deuteronomy 1:9-13 is a different version of the delegation of administrative and legal jobs than either the one in Exodus/Shemot 18:13-26 where Moses’ father-in-law Yitro advises him to delegate 70 elders, or the one in Numbers/Bemidbar 11:16 and 11:24-25 where God tells him to delegate 70 elders.  In this week’s Torah portion, Moses claims that he asked for help on his own initiative, and that he asked the people to choose their own leaders to assist him with giving orders and judging legal disputes.
  4. See my post Haftarat Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship.
  5. Lamentations 1:1, 2:1, 4:1, and 4:2.
  6. The author of Lamentations is not named in the book, but rabbinic tradition ascribes it to the prophet Jeremiah.