Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Voices of Eicha

(suggested by Rabbi Chuck Feinberg)

Who speaks in the Scroll of Lamentations?

Many voices:
  • The witness: I've seen such terrible things
  • The community: How could this happen to us
  • The survivor: Woe is me!
  • The angry victim: It's all the fault of our leaders
  • The narrator: Look at how bad things have gotten
On Tishe b'Av, the daled amot of torah (literally “four paces of the law” -- the breathing room for learning torah, a defined space that is nonetheless big enough to move around) shrinks to Megillat Eicha and a handful of other passages. So it makes sense to spend a little extra time pondering a text that is unpleasant and often ignored the rest of the year.

1:1 to 1:10 – The Narrator
1:11 to 1:22 – The Survivor

2:1 to 2:10 – The Narrator
2:11 to 2:22 – The Witness

3:1 to 3:66 – The Survivor
(3:40 to 3:47 – The Community)

4:1 to 4:10 – The Witness
4:11 to 4:16 – The Angry Victim
4:17 to 4:20 – The Community

5:1 to 5:22 – The Community

One voice is completely absent. Though it fills most of the books of the prophets – namely, the voice of the prophet – we never find the people of Israel referred to in the 2nd person: You, Israel, have been laid low, got what you deserved, will yet see redemption, etc., etc.  

Another voice is so expected, yet so sparse, as to cry out in its absence – the voice of prayer. How rarely we ask, on Tishe b'Av, for God to make things better!

What do we ask ha-Shem to do? In many places, we ask ha-Shem to see, to hear, to listen, to behold, to remember – but not to act. Only to acknowledge our existence and our suffering. And we never use the “jussive” voice, may God cause such-and-such to happen, as in, “ha-Shem oz l'amah titen, ha-Shem tivarech et olamah va-shalom” (May ha-Shem bring about strength for Her people, may ha-Shem cause peace to bless Her world)

Our actual requests of ha-Shem are appear to be quite limited:
  • 1:22 – Wreak the same misery on my foes as you did upon me
  • 3:64-66 – Pursue my foes in anger and destroy them 
  • And the famous second-to-last verse (5:21) – Return us to You, Renew our days as of old
What can we conclude from this accounting of the voices present and absent in Eichah? It is an unusual text, because our relationship with ha-Shem and with the future is so blunted. We don't ask ha-Shem to make things better. We just acknowledge, and ask ha-Shem to acknowledge, how miserable everything is.  

That's not a bad description of the function of Tishe b'Av itself. We're not trying to rouse ourselves to teshuvah, as if this were Yom Kippur. Or to tell ourselves of the miracles that ended the misery, as if this were Pesach. We're not even trying to get drunk and forget how bad it was, as if this were Purim. We're just here, permitting ourselves to see, opening our eyes and hearts to just how bad it can get. It's the one day of the year we force ourselves, not to try to make things better, but instead, simply to not turn away.

No comments:

Post a Comment