Avraham ben Yaakov
LAMENTATIONS CHAPTER 1
The original Hebrew name of Lamentations is KINOTH, "Mourning Dirges" (see II Chronicles 35:25), but the work is more generally known by the name of EICHAH after the Hebrew word with which chapters 1, 2 and 4 all open, meaning "How???"
The book of EICHAH was written in stages by the prophet Jeremiah. He wrote Chapter 4 as a mourning elegy over King Josiah, the last righteous king of Judah , who was slain in battle at the height of his efforts to cleanse Israel , and whose death signified that the sun had gone down for the House of David (Ta'anis 22b). "And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, and all the singing men and singing women spoke of Josiah in their laments to this day, and he made them an ordinance in Israel, and behold they are written in the laments (KINOTH)" (II Chron. 35:25). Rashi writes on this verse: "When they are struck by some trouble or occasion for weeping and they mourn and cry over what happened, they recall this trouble with it, as for example on the Fast of Tisha B'Av, when mourning dirges are recited over those who died in the decrees that have occurred in our days, and likewise they weep over the death of Josiah" (Rashi ad loc.).
The other chapters of EICHAH were written prophetically by Jeremiah not many years after the death of Josiah, in the fourth year of the reign of his son, the wicked King Yeho-yakim, as a warning of the disaster that was to strike Judah and Jerusalem if the people did not repent. The full account of how Jeremiah composed Eichah and how it came to be read before Yeho-yakim, who cut the scroll to shreds and burned it in the fire, is contained in Jeremiah ch 36. Jeremiah had previously prophesied to the women of Judah : "Teach your daughters wailing and each one her neighbor lamentation" (Jer. 9:19). Now in the scroll that he composed as a graphic warning to the people of the coming doom, he depicted the relentless destruction of Jerusalem as if it had already happened, penning words of mourning and lamentation that the people would have to repeat from generation to generation in order to make amends for having failed to repent in time to avert it.
The Mishneh in Mo'ed Katan 3:9, discussing mourning practices, explains that a KINAH dirge (e.g. at a funeral) would be recited responsively: "One woman speaks a verse and all the others answer, as it is written, '.and each one her neighbor lamentation'". Chapters 1-4 of EICHAH are written in the form of alphabetical acrostics. Chapters 1, 2 and 4 each consist of 22 verses starting with successive letters of the Aleph-Beis, while Chapter 3 consists of 66 verses, the first three of which begin with Aleph, the second three with Beis and so on. Prior to the availability of printed texts for everyone, alphabetical acrostics were a useful mnemonic device. Moreover, "Rabbi Yochanan said, Why were Israel punished with troubles depicted in verses beginning with the letters of the Aleph Beis? Because they violated the Torah, which was given with the letters of the Aleph-Beis!" (Sanhedrin 104a).
"Rabbi Abahu began expounding on the scroll of EICHAH quoting the verse, 'And they, like the man (KE-ADAM), have violated the Covenant' (Hosea 6:7). What does 'like the man' mean? The verse is comparing the people to Adam, the first man. The Holy One blessed be He said: I brought Adam into the Garden of Eden and gave him a commandment, but he violated My commandment so I drove him out and banished him and mourned over him with the phrase, 'Where are you?' (=AYEKAH, Genesis 3:9, consisting of the same Hebrew letters as EICHAH). Likewise I brought his children to the Land of Israel and gave them commandments, but they violated My commandments and I banished them, and I mourned over them with the word EICHAH!!!" (Introduction to Eichah Rabbah).
This Midrash is teaching us that the disaster which befell Judah and Jerusalem must be seen as part of the greater cycle of human sin and consequent suffering and chastisement that began with Adam and continues until today. Just as God's call to Adam, "Where are you???" (Gen. 3:9) was a call to repentance, so is the scroll of EICHAH, a call to repentance, challenging us to see the meaning and purpose of the suffering with which Israel has been afflicted. There are many ways in which humans react to terrible reverses and suffering. Sometimes they fall into the depths of helpless grief, despair and depression. In other cases, they react with rage and anger, kicking and rebelling against God or "fate" for sending them such troubles. But in putting the laments of EICHAH onto the lips of Israel, the prophet Jeremiah was providing them with words and images by means of which they could not only give expression to their pain and grief but also come to terms with their suffering by understanding its meaning and purpose through the recognition that it was divinely sent to chasten and purify them from their sins. The prophet (NAVEE) draws his words from the level of BINAH, "understanding", sweetening the bitter pill of suffering by justifying the ways of God. "For great as the sea is your breach: Who (MEE) can heal you?" (Lam. 2:13). Kabbalistically, the word MEE alludes to BINAH, which lies at the root of God's judgments and through which they are "sweetened" when we gain deeper understanding of their meaning and purpose.
Not only is EICHAH full of allusions to the historical disasters that struck Israel with the destruction of the Temple and the exile. The multi-layered text is also replete with allusions to the metaphysical roots of Israel 's fall, which lie in the "Breaking of the Vessels" as explained in the Kabbalistic writings. For "He cast from heaven to earth the glory (TIFERET) of Israel and did not remember the stool of His feet (=MALCHUS) on the day of His anger. The Lord has swallowed up (BEELA) and has not shown pity" (Eichah 2:1-2). BEELA has the same Hebrew letters as Bela son of Be'or, first of the Seven Kings of Edom, who correspond to the shattered vessels of the Sefirot.
Rabbi Hayim ben Attar, author of the commentary OHR HA-HAYIM on the Five Books of Moses, explains in his commentary RISHON LE-ZION on EICHAH that the way the Elegist accomplishes his purpose, which is to arouse weeping in his listeners, is by crafting each and every verse as "a lamb's tail with a thorn caught in it". Without digressing to give expansive explanations and background, each verse is designed to pierce the listener in the heart with a sharp evocation of some detail of the calamity.
The opening verses of EICHAH chapter 1 contrast the lost greatness, power and prestige of Jerusalem with her present abject state of subjection, isolated like a leper, having been betrayed by those she thought were her friends.
"She weeps sore in the night" (v 2). The doubled Hebrew verb for weeping alludes to the weeping over the destruction of the two Temples, which came about because of the needless weeping of the Children of Israel in the wilderness on the night after they received the Ten Spies' negative report about the Land (Numbers 14:1). This was on the 9 th day of the month of Av, which was thereafter marked out as a day of weeping for all the generations (Ta'anis 29a; see Rashi on Lam. 1:2).
Already in verse 5 the Elegist weaves into his depiction of the overthrow of Israel at the hands of their enemies the understanding that it came about "because HaShem has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions" (Lam. 1:5) - for " Jerusalem has sinned a sin." (ibid. v 8).
Israel is depicted as a widow (v 1), an unclean Niddah-woman (v 8) and a raped virgin (v 15). The pathos of Israel is increased by the fact that there is none to comfort her. This leads the Elegist to call upon God Himself to look on her in her wretchedness (verse 9), thereby drawing into us the understanding that everything is under His watchful providence. The Elegist depicts the full horror of the calamity, evoking the fire that burned in the people's very bones, their sense of being helplessly trapped in a snare (v 13), the destruction and devastation of the youth (vv 15-16) etc. Yet after all this he says, "HaShem is righteous, for I have rebelled against His mouth." (v 18).
Israel 's pain over her suffering at the hands of the nations brings her to call for vengeance against them, but this is because they are truly guilty. For if Israel must suffer because of her sins, so should they (vv 21-22).
The first nine verses of Chapter 2 depict the calamity that struck Zion in such a way as to emphasize that it was God who sent it. As the text states explicitly later on in the chapter: "HaShem has done that which He devised: He has fulfilled His word that He commanded in the days of old." (Lam. 2:17). The cycle of sin and consequent suffering that culminated with the destruction of Jerusalem is deeply rooted in God's plan for the world, which is laid down in the Torah: "If you will not listen to me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins" (Lev. 26:18, see Rashi on Lam. 2:17).
The Elegist makes no attempt to "sweeten" the suffering by trying to minimize how terrible it was. On the contrary, he heightens our sense of the horror by repeatedly emphasizing the way in which the kind, merciful God became like an enemy in the fury with which He brought death and destruction upon the people and their land (vv 1-8). All who were pleasant to the eye were slaughtered (v 4). The precious Temple was ravaged (v 6). The rejoicing of the Sabbath and the festivals became forgotten. Without respect for person, the king and the princes were sent into a humiliating exile, the prophets were bereft of vision, and all that was left for the people to do was to mourn as children fainted in the streets and little babies starved (vv 7-12).
It is precisely through articulating the full intensity of the horror and showing how the soothsaying false prophets had betrayed the people while their mocking enemies gloated triumphantly over their plight that the Elegist leads his listeners to the understanding that they have no recourse except to cry out to God (vv 18ff). The moral of EICHAH is: "Rise, cry out in the night at the head of the watches, pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord." (v 19).
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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