Monday, July 23, 2007

Listening to Eicha

Several years ago, a friend of mine who happens to be a medievalist was telling me about the the difficulty she had connecting to Tisha B'Av. I told her what I generally thought at the time, which was that if you pay attention to the book of Eicha (Lamentations), you can't fail to be depressed by it. She said, "I don't know. It sounds just like all the other descriptions of sacked cities I've been reading lately."

At first I was taken aback, but later I realized that she was making an important point. From the standpoint of traditional Jewish theology, the destruction of the Temple is unique among catastrophes, which is why we continue to mourn it in so many different ways. But I was referring to the human tragedy in the book of Eicha, and, gruesome as that is, it isn't any worse than many other catastrophes than have befallen countless peoples throughout history. Those of us who study the past learn to accept descriptions of horrible events as a matter of course. Those of us who study Jewish history may find Eicha even more difficult to relate to, as we've come to see the event it describes as a practically inevitable consequence of regional politics, one of many similar scenarios that were playing out throughout the Near East. More and more, as I read the book of Eicha, that is what I see.

The traditional solution to this would be for me to try to understand the spiritual significance of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of God's presence. But that doesn't work for me right now. Instead, I'm trying to do something much smaller: to hear Eicha in the voice of its authors, people who actually witnessed the brutal destruction of everything they held dear. I can't do this every time I hear about a tragedy; no one can have that much empathy and live. But as a Jew, I can try to connect to this one paradigmatic tragedy this one time a year, with as much of myself as I can.


Last year, I wrote two posts linking to my favorite Tisha B'Av reading on the web, as well as to my own previous posts (link, link). As usual, I recommend Hitzei Yehonatan for both new and old material. (There are two new relevant posts, dated July 16 and 23. Don't get too turned of by the zodiacal stuff.) I also read a nice piece by The Curious Jew about how she relates to some kinot better than others, and I'm looking forward to reading The Velveteen Rabbi's thoughts on Eicha. I'll continue to update if I come across anything worthwhile.

A safe fast to those who are observing it.


fleurdelis28 said...

The big sense I got from Eichah this year was the author'(s') shock that this could happen to us, that God would let something like this happen to us, even if we deserved it.

Also, that Eichah trope is quite possibly too beautiful and elegaic a melody for a book that's written in present-tense horror. In that respect, I think, it works better in Esther than in Eichah itself. But I'll take any excuse to listen to Eichah trope.

As for specific content, the parts that got me the most were the lines about the foreign soldiers partying in the Temple and foxes wandering around on Mount Zion. The undeniable fact of the tragedy is somehow nowhere near as shocking as the idea that the whole world hasn't stopped to recognize that something tragic has happened - for other creatures occupying the same physical space as the starving, mourning people, this is just another military victory or a completely random event that enables them to expand their habitat. In a sense, maybe, Eichah is about what it's like to feel one's self at the center of the world and see the world not care.

In that sense, maybe the point IS that what has happened to so many other cities and nations happened to us, as incredible as we may have found and find that to believe. It's hard to imagine a bigger tragedy in the Jewish imagination -- being massively scapegoated is, at least, somewhat unique.* Having everyone hate you means you must be special. Most peoples, however disliked, have not had large groups of other people try their utmost to wipe them off the planet. But getting your city trashed by invaders just like invaders trash everybody? How do you explain that?

* I can't believe I'm willingly using a modified absolute, but I really can't think of a suitable equivalent phrase.

elf said...

Interesting perspective, and spot-on, I think.

Mar Gavriel said...

As for specific content, the parts that got me the most were the lines about the foreign soldiers partying in the Temple and foxes wandering around on Mount Zion.


A few months ago, I went up on top of the Temple Mount. I saw the fifteen steps on which the Levites used to stand, and I saw the Arab guy comfortably sitting on the steps, smoking a cigarette.

Months later, as I recited the prayer נַחֵם on the Ninth of Ab, at the YU Beis Medrosh, I thought of that image as I said the words והעיר האבֵלה והחרבה והבזויה והשוממה.

(Although perhaps I'm wrong to associate religious words with real-life situations. Such demythologization can lead to murder.)

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