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Eicha: How Do We Respond to Tragedy?
Composed of just five chapters, Eicha is primarily dedicated to mourning the loss of Jerusalem and confronting God during this terrible crisis. It’s written from the perspective of an eyewitness, traditionally Jeremiah. You would think with such an incredibly devastating tragedy; the destruction of the temple, of the exile, there seem to be an absolute rupture in the people of Israel’s history. You would think that the poem of Eicha would be chaos, and yet it follows a very highly structured poetic artifice.
Chapters 1, 2, 4 and 5; each have twenty-two verses, corresponding to the letters in the Aleph Bet. Chapter 3 has sixty-six verses which goes through the Aleph Bet three times over. Until the very last chapter, Chapter 5, Lamentations, or Eicha, follow a straight up Aleph Bet Acrostic; it has this aleph bet format. Why would it incorporate such an incredibly structured poetic, rather than just going to show chaos? The answer is that we can learn from the content and from the structure of Megillat Eichad, the Book of Eicha. The content and the structure both make the Megillah particularly poignant and also relatable to all forms of tragedy.
Chapter 1 likens Jerusalem to a woman whose husband had abandoned her. Although this image evokes pity; it’s so painful to listen to that, it also moves into the notion that it was her fault. The woman had taken lovers and therefore deserved abandonment from her husband which in the analogy of course, is God. After the tension, Israel admits that she has sinned and she ask for mercy and for God to punish her enemies. Chapter 1 constantly shows the disaster of the destruction of Jerusalem was a deserved disaster; Israel had sinned and therefore Israel had brought this punishment upon herself. In this point of view, chapter one adopts a divine transcendent perspective; it’s very rational, it adopts and adapts certain theological principles trying to explain all of history in this particular case, the idea that Israel sin, brings upon Israel disaster. And it’s important to note that the twenty-two verses of the Aleph Bet acrostic in Chapter 1, the Aleph Bet is in order; starting with Aleph, then Bet, all the way down to Taf, showing a calculated sense of misery. So on the one hand, Chapter 1 is very depressing, you hear about the destruction, you hear about the exile, you feel the abandonment of Jerusalem. On the other hand, Jerusalem very rationally says, “It’s my fault. I took on foreign deities, I was unfaithful to the covenant with God, and as a result I deserve this disaster.”
When we turn to Chapter 2, it continues to mourn the loss and the destruction, but now it shifts tone. For the first time, it starts asking a question which is, “How could God be so harsh? Even if we sinned, even if the people of Israel had been unfaithful, did we really deserve this level of punishment? Do we really deserve this level of type of destruction and disaster?” It talks about the sheer pitiful state of the people of Israel and of Jerusalem. Chapter 1 is depressed; Chapter 2 is angry. What’s important to note is that the Aleph Bet structure in Chapter 2 continues in the same format as Chapter 1; which is Aleph, then a verse beginning with Bet and then a verse beginning with Gimmel, and so on. But here very curiously, there is one deviation. If you get all the way down towards the end of the chapter, the verses beginning with Peh and Ayin, the Peh comes before the Ayin, that’s very strange because as we know, the Aleph Bet goes Samach, Ayin, Peh, Tzaddi, Kuf, whereas here we have Samach, Peh, Ayin, Tzaddi, Kuf. Why does the Peh come before the Ayin? Scholars have long discussed this issue based on ancient alphabetic texts that have been found. And it turns out that according to some of these texts, the Aleph Bet order was not as fixed as it is today, meaning that there are times that you find an Ayin coming before a Peh. But, there are other occasions where you find a Peh coming before an Ayin. So at the level of sheer pshat if you want to discuss what is the significance of this, there may not be an incredible amount of significance in so far as back in those days, sometimes Peh really came before the Ayin, and in which case, it was just simply a legitimate alternate of the order of Aleph Bet from that era.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin 104B however, offers a more homiletic explanation which I think is incredibly valuable for understanding Megillat Eicha. Rabba said in Rabbi Yochanan’s name, “Why does he place the Peh before the Ayin?” “Because the spies spoke with their mouth what they had not seen with their eyes.” The Hebrew word for mouth is peh, and the Hebrew word for eye is ayin. So these two letters, Ayin and Peh actually represent words.
Let’s take that talmudic passage which gives significance to Peh and Ayin, and apply it to the Book of Eicha. When you have your ayin before your peh, when you put your eye before your mouth, what does that mean? That means that when you look at something, you get a chance to reflect on it, and later on you speak. From that point of view, you’re speech is calculated, it is rational; and that’s what is represented in Chapter 1, where they see a disaster, they think about it for a little while and they say “oh, it must be our fault, it must be that Israel has sinned and that certainly is in sync with many prophetic messages of that period.” In Chapter 2, the mouth comes before the eye; that means that one is speaking from the heart, one is bursting forth with emotions. In that point of view, Chapter 2 therefore is angry. Even if Israel sinned, Israel remains angry at God for this disaster, and the poetic artifice of the Aleph Bet, as structured as it is, this little deviation might be very significant. The idea is that Chapter 2, the Peh comes before the Ayin; the mouth comes before the eye.
Turning to Chapter 3, the first section of Chapter 3 seems to be the sorry and despairs of a relationship with God altogether; that depression continues from the author. Right in the middle of that starting with verse 21, suddenly there is this ray of hope. Suddenly in the depths of his despair, the author is filled with hope in God and God’s ultimate fairness, and begins to be happy which is remarkable in the middle of Chapter 3. Then the final section of Chapter 3 vacillates between despair, hope in God and a call to repentance. There begins to become greater choppiness within the chapter. And once again, given this choppiness, we don’t sense rational order, we find once again that the three verses beginning with the letter Peh, precede the three verses beginning with the letter Ayin. There’s still unprocessed painful feeling, there are still emotions that transcend the intellect; there is no rational acceptance of this tragedy. The author at this point is the throws of emotions. So while intellect play some role in the poetic structure, the Peh comes before the Ayin. The mouth is coming before the eye, reflecting this deep emotional outburst, was coming from the depths of the soul of the author.
Turning now to Chapter 4, we see further details of the destruction including a truly horrifying description of children being killed either by the swords or starving from the famine and then compassionate mothers eating the flesh of their deceased children because of the incredible terrible famine that had occurred right around the time of the destruction. Chapter 4 also jumps between blaming God for the destruction, blaming Israel for her sins, and expresses anger at Israel’s enemy who after all, did a lot of this damage themselves. There is no one focal point just because once again, the author is jumping from place to place. So even without looking at the text, by now, you should be able to predict what the Aleph Bet order will be. It begins Aleph and Bet and Gimmel and Dalet, when we get down towards the end of the Chapter what do we find? Once again, the verse beginning with Peh precedes the verse beginning with Ayin, because once again, the emotional outpouring of the author trumps the intellectual ordering of the word. So while there is some order, once again, the order of the chapter reveals this sense that the author is tormented. The emotions that are preceding an intellectual discourse describing the churban.
Let me get to Chapter 5. Chapter 5 is a truly depressing chapter because there is a desperate appeal that goes on here where the description of the destruction continues and finally the author just turns to God at the very end of the Megillah. The final four verses read “But you oh Lord are on throne forever; your throne endures throw the ages. Why have you forgotten us utterly; forsaken us for all time? Take us back oh Lord to yourself and let us come back. Renew our days [unintelligible, 0:10:00], for truly you have rejected us, bitterly raged against us.” Tradition doesn’t allow us to end on such a depressing note so we review the penultimate verse, “ Hashivenu Hashem eleicha vevashuvah hadesh yameinu kekedem. This is a very desperate appeal indeed. The author of the Megillah doesn’t end on some happy note or some resolution, quite on the contrary, at this point the exile seems to be interminable, when is it going to be end? And there is no end in sight. The painful conclusion leaves the reader as well as the author and everybody in between, incredibly uneasy; there is no solution at all.
So what should Aleph Bet structure be? It’s even more this time than the Peh before the Ayin. This time, there is no Aleph Bet acrostic at all; there is no sense of order. For the first time we sense this complete breakdown in the poetic structure because the author realizes that the damage is truly terrible and now comes a point of having to build a relationship with God post churban, post destruction and post exile. While on the one hand, there is no aleph bet order at all in Chapter 5, showing no sense of order, there is a glimmer of hope after all because there still are twenty-two verses that suggest order and hope for the future, there still is room for that Aleph Bet to come back. One day there will even be order once again in the world.
The Aleph Bet pattern in Megillat Eicha goes from being completely ordered in Chapter 1, to deviations of Peh before the Ayin in chapters 2, 3 and 4. The last chapter does not follow the control Aleph Bet structure at all, signifying a complete breakdown and emotional outbursts. But at least, there are twenty-two verses showing that there is a glimmer of hope for building structure in the future. And this applies so much to whenever we confront tragedies, whether it be the tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temples, or whether we are dealing with other forms of tragedy.
Very often when people experience a catastrophe, emotions break out at different points and Megillah Eicha in fact helps guide us through that process. Often, we first try to make sense of what happens, we try to create an order. But then overtime, the emotions kick in and we begin to become more turbulent within, and eventually the Peh comes before the Ayin, and eventually we start putting our mouth before our eyes because it is nearly impossible for a human being to remain purely in the rational planes. It’s exactly when things do not appear to make sense for us, where we face the greatest challenge and that’s what Megillat Eicha wants us to confront directly, rather than saying “oh, everything is fine or everything can be explained”. We don’t hide behind that shallow expression of faith; we also don’t abandon our faith even if those two responses are emotionally understandable, they are very, very deeply incomplete. There comes a point, which Megillat Eicha teaches us, where we don’t understand everything about how God operates and we also never want to negate our emotional responses. The fact is people are people, and we need to be able to confront God from the depths of our souls rather than just from the party line of great order that is reflected in Chapter 1.
In the end, chapters 2, 3 and 4 with the Peh before the Ayin, and Chapter 5 with the complete breakdown of the Aleph Bet structure, we find a very human process that we all go through in times of tragedy and depression. In the end we are humble by our smallness and helplessness and our lack of understanding of the greater picture, but at the same time that process should help lead us to a higher love and awe of God. Ideally, going through this entire process and being conscious of it, we come full circle until we can again begin building up a stronger faith and trust in God than we had before. Our expression of persistent hope is what has kept us alive as a people. So as we read Megillat Eicha on Tisha B’Av, on the one hand we go through this very turbulent emotional process starting with our most rational selves, then beginning to burst out , until finally we lose sense of order. But ultimately Megillat Eicha helps guide us in a relationship with God through our darkest times in the churban, the destruction of the temples, so that we can continue to build a stronger and deeper and more honest relationship with God after that.