Day Sixteen: 3 Av
There is a fascinating point of comparison between Eikha and the kina, “A’adeh Ad Ĥug Shamayim” (the eighth kina in many collections): the way that personification is used to illustrate tragedy. In Eikha, Jerusalem bemoaning her exiles becomes a grieving mother crying over her lost children. The book opens with the image of a lone woman that sets a haunting tone for its continuation: “Alas – she sits in solitude. The city that was great with people has become like a widow.” Initially we do not know who “she” is, but the fact that she sits alone communicates vulnerability and loss. The continuation introduces the city that has become a widow. Then we understand that Jerusalem is a woman, a lost woman.
Some of the most jarring images in Eikha take a female form – the forlorn daughter of Zion who has lost her splendor, the maidens ushered into captivity, the city as a harlot. Jerusalem becomes a nursing mother with no milk, and a crazed mother who consumes her babies.
By making Jerusalem into a ravaged woman, the city suddenly has feelings; it assumes an animate life; it bleeds and needs and weeps: “All that pass by clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their head at the daughter of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Is this the city that men call The perfection of beauty, The joy of the whole earth?’” (Lam. 2:15). The fall of a city is more than the destruction of bricks, mortar and the cityscape. It becomes the collapse of a nation’s heart.
In the eighth kina, mentioned above, a reverse process occurs. Instead of a city becoming a person, a human voice likens itself to the expanse of nature, taking on elements of inanimate objects. Nature is used to wail about the destruction – “Would that I could soar to the sphere of heaven that I would make the heavens lament with me”; the amputation of a person’s limbs is compared to a broken olive tree, spinning words that don’t stop are likened to a wheel, constellations are distraught. In perhaps the most powerful image, “The sun and moon howl together and refuse to shine upon me, / I would shriek ‘If only my words could be recorded.’” To express tragedy, personification is used to the opposite effect. The suffering of a lone individual is magnified exponentially by the enormity of nature and its impersonal relationship to humanity. The sun and moon cannot howl like a human in pain. Suffering cannot be recorded for posterity in the sands of time whose patterns continuously change. We all have moments of illusion when we scream for the whole world to stop and pay attention to our pain. But it does not stop. Unlike a city that becomes a person so that we feel its solitude, the first person singular in this kina longs for the consolation and commiseration of nature to no avail.
This construction in both forms of sacred literature – the biblical and the liturgical – offers us two ways to relate to tragedy in circumstances where words never suffice. Where words fail us, images sometimes help create the picture of loss. A destroyed Jerusalem as a mourning mother is an image we may all sadly recognize. We will never see a howling sun which refuses to shine, and yet the imaginative powers are drawn to highlight the absurdity of it. Destruction, too, has both these faces: the pitiful and the absurd. On these days when our national history speaks to us in its most melancholy voice, it asks us to stretch the imagination and make what is animate, still, and what is not living, weep.
Kavana for the Day
Give animate qualities to an inanimate building. Take the Kotel in Jerusalem and have it speak. What would it say to the people who come there to pray? What history has it seen and how has it understood it? To what would it bear witness? Use your imagination to give feelings to the stones and crevices. In the voice of the prophets, write down what observations, what anguish and wisdom it would offer us today.