Judaism: Eicha! (Lamentations)
Daniel PinnerDaniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher and an electrician by profession; a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.
Arutz Sheva wishes a hearty mazel tov to the Pinner family on the birth of a daughter this week.
The Book of Eichah is the agonised cry of the prophet Jeremiah – the prophet who for decades had warned his beloved nation of impending destruction if they would not return to G-d and to His Torah. Jeremiah had first been called to prophecy in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Yoshiyahu (Josiah); and for 37 years, through the reigns of five kings, he battled false prophets, idolatrous kings, corrupt Kohanim in the Holy Temple, indifferent masses, and a cynical national psyche, crying out his gloomy warnings throughout the Land.
He could have had no joy in being proven right. He was in prison – incarcerated by his own people with the collaboration of King Tzidkiyahu (Zedekiah), the final king of Judea (Jeremiah 38:4-6) – when the Babylonians finally conquered Jerusalem. King Tzidkiyahu fled for his life, and the Babylonian forces captured him in the plains of Jericho. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, “slaughtered Tzidkiyahu’s sons in Riblah before his eyes…he then blinded Tzidkiyahu’s eyes and bound him in leg-irons to bring him to Babylon” (39:6-7). And then Nebuchadnezzar had Jeremiah released from his imprisonment (vs. 11-12).
Nebuchadnezzar led the masses of Jews captive to Babylon. And “when they were exiled, Jeremiah began his dirge for them with the word ‘eichah’” (Eichah Rabbah, Introduction 8).
The Midrash notes that “three [prophets] prophesied using the word ‘eichah’: Moshe, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Moshe said, ‘Eichah – how can I alone bear your quarrelsomeness, your burdens, and fighting?’ (Deuteronomy 1:12). Isaiah said, ‘Eichah – how has the faithful City [Jerusalem] become as a harlot!’ (Isaiah 1:21). Jeremiah said, ‘Eichah – how this City [Jerusalem] sits in solitude! This City that was great with people has become as a widow!’ (Lamentations 1:1)” (Eichah Rabbah 1:1).
When Chazal formalised the annual Torah-reading sequence towards the end of the Second Temple period, they decreed that certain portions of the Torah would be read at certain junctures of the year. And as part of this, they linked all three prophets who prophesied using the word “Eichah”. Parashat D’varim, containing Moshe’s prophecy of “Eichah”, is invariably read on the Shabbat immediately preceding the fast of the ninth of Av; the Haftarah for this Shabbat is the first chapter of Isaiah, containing Isaiah’s prophecy of “Eichah”; and on the ninth of Av itself, Jews the world over read the Book of Lamentations – the Scroll of “Eichah”.
The Scroll of Eichah follows a very precise rhythm. The first two chapters are alphabetical acrostics with 22 verses each – one verse for each letter of the alef-bet. The third chapter, also an alphabetical acrostic, has 66 verses – three for each letter of the alef-bet: the first three verses each begin with an alef, the second three with a bet, and so forth. These verses are all much shorter than in the other chapters – sharp staccato sounds. The fourth chapter returns to the same rhythm as the first two chapters – twenty-two long, flowing verses, forming an alphabetical acrostic. The fifth and final chapter also consists of 22 verses, but uniquely in this Book, they do not form an acrostic.
Is there any connexion between Jeremiah’s repeated use of the lament “Eichah”, and the alphabetic acrostic which runs through his Book of Lamentations?
Jeremiah lived a century after Isaiah, and almost nine centuries after Moshe. When he composed this series of dirges, both these prophets and the Books they wrote were well-known among the Jewish nation. So when Jeremiah used the word “Eichah” as a recurring theme, he was making a clear reference to his predecessors – a reference that every Jew would have recognised instantly.
His repeated use of alphabetic acrostics shows that his lamentations were not merely a spontaneous shriek of anguish. Rather, this is a carefully-designed dirge, following a deliberate and intricate design.
The Book of Lamentations is replete with references to the Tanach. Let us mention just two of these:
(1) “Eichah – How has the Lord, in His anger, clouded the Daughter of Zion! He has cast the glory of Israel from heaven down to earth, and He did not remember His footstool on the day of His fury” (Lamentations 2:1).
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the phrase “ve-lo zachar” (“and he did not remember”) occurs only three times in the Tanach: the first refers to Pharaoh’s chief butler – “and he did not remember Joseph” (Genesis 40:23); the second refers to King Yoash (Joash), some two centuries before Jeremiah – “and he [Yoash] did not remember the kindness that Yehoyada, [Zechariah’s] father, had done him” (2 Chronicles 24:22).
When Jeremiah used this phrase “ve-lo zachar” (“and he did not remember”), he was deliberately referring to these two previous incidents. In the words of the Ba’al ha-Turim: “Pharaoh’s chief butler was an ingrate, by not remembering the good that Joseph had done him. And similarly Yoash was an ingrate by not remembering the good that Yehoyada the Kohen had done him, and killed Zechariah his son. And this explains the phrase ‘and He did not remember His footstool’” (Ba’al ha-Turim, Commentary to Genesis 40:23).
The implication of the Ba’al ha-Turim’s words is that Israel were punished for their ingratitude to G-d.
(2) Twice in Lamentations, Jeremiah uses the word “ve-nashuvah” (“and we will return” or “we will repent”): “We will search out our ways and examine them, ‘ve-nashuvah’ – and we will return unto HaShem” (Lamentations 3:40); “Return us, O HaShem, unto You, ‘ve-nashuvah’ – and we will return” (5:21).
The Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the word “ve-nashuvah” occurs six times in the Tanach. The first is when Abraham, on his way to bind Isaac, told his two lads, “We will prostrate ourselves, ‘ve-nashuvah’ – and we will return” (Genesis 22:5). The second is in the sin of the spies, when the people said: “Let us appoint a leader, ‘ve-nashuvah’ – and we will return to Egypt” (Numbers 14:4). The third is when the future king Saul, when sent to search for his father’s lost donkeys, eventually told his attendant, “Come ‘ve-nashuvah’ – and we will return, lest my father forget about the donkeys and start worrying about us!” (1 Samuel 9:5). The fourth is the prophet Hosea’s exhortation to the nation: “Let us go ‘ve-nashuvah’ – and we will return to HaShem” (Hosea 6:1). And the two final times are in the Book of Lamentations (3:40 and 5:21, cited above).
The Ba’al ha-Turim expounds: “In the merit of Abraham who said ‘We will prostrate, “ve-nashuvah” – and we will return’, Israel merited to repent [‘return’ and ‘repent’ are the same word in Hebrew]. The implication of ‘Let us go “ve-nashuvah” – and we will return to HaShem’ is ‘We will search out our ways and examine them, “ve-nashuvah” – and we will return unto HaShem’, as well as ‘Return us, O HaShem, unto You, “ve-nashuvah” – and we will return’. And in Abraham’s merit the exiles are ingathered, which is the implication of ‘“ve-nashuvah” – and we will return to HaShem’: if they do not merit, they instead say ‘“ve-nashuvah” – and we will return to Egypt’; and when they do merit, they say ‘Return us, O HaShem, unto You, “ve-nashuvah” – and we will return’. All is in the merit of Abraham” (Ba’al ha-Turim, Commentary to Genesis 22:5).
Jeremiah composed the Scroll of Lamentations as a heartfelt cry of anguish, the sobbing of a broken heart devastated at being vindicated. But nevertheless, Jeremiah constructed this dirge with great precision – an alphabetic acrostic, replete with references to our past, beginning with the very first word “Eichah”, which recurs as the theme of this Book, referring back to Moshe’s and Isaiah’s prophecies.
Jeremiah, with exquisite subtlety, infused the message: The invasion of Israel by Babylon, the destruction of our Holy Temple, our bitter exile – these are not random events of happenstance! All these tragedies which befall us are neither “the bludgeonings of chance” nor “the fell clutch of circumstance”.
They are as sequential as the alef-bet: sin is inevitably followed by the opportunity to repent, and continued sin without repentance in inevitably followed by punishment.
Depressing and gloomy though the Scroll of Eichah undoubtedly is, this is nevertheless a measure of comfort. Though we have been tossed on the tempest of hate and destruction, there is a reason for our suffering.
And just as our suffering is not meaningless, we are guaranteed that G-d is guiding us through our exile, though He be hidden; and that our exile will indeed one day come to its end.
The first time that the word “ve-nashuvah” (“and we will return” or “we will repent”), as the Ba’al ha-Turim notes, is Abraham’s statement to his lads, “We will prostrate, ‘ve-nashuvah’ – and we will return”.
In Abraham’s merit “nishtachaveh ve- nashuvah” – we will prostrate, we will pray to G-d; and thus “nashuvah” – we will repent. And in the merit of “teshuvah” – repentance, “nashuvah” – we return to the Land of Israel.