"The world of Lamentations has been disrupted; no order exists any longer in the real world. But as if to counteract this chaos, the poet has constructed his own linguistic order that he marks out graphically for us by the orderly progression of the letters of the alphabet."
-- Adele Berlin, Lamentations
Is Eicha really so orderly?
Do we act out grief, enact it? How should we feel grief on Tisha B'Av? How does a work such as Eicha complement the ritual and laws we follow on the fast day, so we not only have a halakhic framework, but a sense of what we should be feeling on the day?
Why seems it so particular with thee?
'Seems,' madam? Nay it is. I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed 'seem,'
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
Hamlet begins with the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude, the main character Hamlet's uncle and mother. While the kingdom celebrates their marriage, Hamlet is filled with grief over the recent death of his father King Hamlet. His mother questions why Hamlet seems so grief-stricken, and this passage is his reply.
Hamlet explains that people may wear black, sigh, wail, and show outward signs of grief, but these are "actions that a man might play." In actuality, someone may not be all that mournful. Hamlet has within that which "passeth show,/These but the trappings and the suits of woe." Hamlet is actually grief-stricken, he says, yet at the same time, Shakespeare makes us aware of the fact that we're in a play, when he has Hamlet say the behavior of a mourner is something that a "man might play." In Shakespeare's time, "a player" was an actor, so Shakespeare takes us out of the play by reminding us that here is an actor acting out the part of someone who is grief-stricken, even though Hamlet is saying he's not. Very "meta."
This meta-moment is a good jumping off point for this source sheet, though. Poetry works as a vessel to contain a thought, an emotion. Biblical poetry does so with a particularly religious aim. In the case of Eicha, the emotion, like Hamlet's, is one of grief, and like all poems, Eicha has particular poetic constraints. As the opening quotation by Adele Berlin shows, the constraints may be to order that which is wild and uncontained, the poet's grief.
My contention here is that the poet tries to contain his grief by using strict poetic forms, but grief is a wild thing, and the grief keeps slamming up against the poetic form, spilling out from it because it is so devastating.
Basic Overview of Chapters:
Chapter One: The desolation of Zion
Chapter Two: God's anger and Zion's ruin
Chapter Three: Man's suffering
Chapter Four: The agony of the Holy City
Chapter Five: God should remember and forgive His enslaved and shamed people
-- From Robert Gordis
Chiasmus: Repetition of any group of verse elements (including rhyme and grammatical structure) in reverse order, such as the rhyme scheme ABBA.
-- Definition from poetryfoundation.org
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." -- John Keats
Chiasmus is a tightly structured form.
Chapters 1, 2, and 4 seem like funeral songs for political and national purposes. Chapter 3 is an individual lament, and Chapter 5 seems like a lament/prayer. So the chiasmus seems tight, but it's actually not. Here's one example of how the poetic technique of chiasmus is broken by the poet's grief. Chapter 3 is supposed to be an individual lament, but Adele Berlin points out that by Pasuk 40, the poet starts to pray. Below are two verses from Chapter 3: the first one introduces the fact that the chapter will be an individual lament, as a "Job-like figure" roams the land, but the second verse, pasuk 40, shows the beginning of a national prayer that extends through many verses.
(Note the chiasmus in the first four words, and the play on the word, "I," and "am afflicted.")
The Acrostic Form
The acrostic is another tight poetic form used in Eicha.
* We know it from the Middle Ages, when there was a belief in the mystical powers of letters
* Practical reason: it aids memory
* For artistic purposes: it displays the author's skill and makes a more beautiful offering to the recipient
* Contributes to the structure of the poem:
- In Eicha, it creates a vessel for grief and creates a complement, a dialectic:
The simplicity of the form reveals the rawness of grief, a time when we're reduced to primal emotions, sometimes left speechless, without language, so the simple alphabet is all we have, as the acrostic form suggests. But as we'll see, the poem is a lot more complicated than it is simple.
In fact, if you think about it, the acrostic form is a playful kind of poetic form, a simple form of poetry that almost everyone has tried at one time in their life. As soon as you know the alphabet, you can give it a go. So the simple playfulness is an ironic juxtaposition to grief and complicates the form, creating another example of grief's breaking through poetic structure.
"In Lamentations, the impression is rather of a boundless grief, an overflowing emotion, whose expression benefits from the limits imposed by a confining acrostic form, as from a tightly fixed metrical pattern." -- Adele Berlin
Yes, there's a fixed metrical pattern in Eicha, called Qinah meter. That could take an entire lecture to explain, but briefly:
* Meter is the number of fixed syllables per line of poetry, as well as the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line.
* The Qinah meter in Eicha, along with the dirge-like melody, contributes to the elegaic form and feeling of the work.
Why use Qinah meter?
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
-- Alexander Pope
OK, so we have funeral songs, individual cries and national laments.
WHO IS SUPPOSED TO BE DEAD?
Adele Berlin analyzes the term "Bat Zion." It can be translated as "Daughter of Zion," but she suggests it's perhaps better to translate it as "Daughter Zion," which now gives us a metaphor for who is dead: Daughter Zion, the city of Zion personified as a woman. Berlin counts 20 references to Bat Zion, Bat, and Betulat Bat Zion in Eicha and 16 in Yirmiyahu, out of the 45 total in the Hebrew Bible, a high percentage.
Men and women in Eicha are pretty strongly gendered, so let's keep that in mind as we unpack the metaphors with Berlin's help.
Metaphors of Zion as a woman abound in Eicha. Zion is a daughter, making us think of someone young and innocent, someone who should be protected. She represents the future: her role will be to marry and produce the next generation. She is a symbol of potential fertility.
Zion is a widow, someone who is not at the center of social and communal life, as she isn't married and cannot contribute to the growth of society. She is a figure of pity as well, lonely as she must be.
Zion is even farther from accepted society when she is depicted as an adulterous woman, someone who is dangerous to the health of the nation. With her lustful ways, she doesn't think of the future: of her children and of the nation. How can she be sure who the father of her children is if she strays? This woman is to be shamed and ostracized for the threat she poses to the order of the nation.
Zion as mother -- and a pitiable figure as she cannot feed her own children. In fact, she goes against the natural order of the world when Eicha says she eats her own children.
Because this lecture was delivered at an AMIT Women's Tea and because Zion is so often depicted as a woman, I focused on the female metaphors and images of the book, but the male metaphors and images are as strongly gendered and also go against the natural order. The men cannot protect their homes, their families and their ancestral lands. They cannot fill their political, military, royal, and religious roles.
Another note: Zion is a holy city. There were other holy cities in the ancient world, and when any holy city was destroyed, it was considered a catastrophe, something to take notice of. It still feels so today, in the way the world takes notice of Jerusalem.
The ancient world, as it does today, also had non-holy cities, but cities were places where, if governed well, justice and order could prevail. In the 14th century fresco at the end of the source sheet are Lorenzetti's frescoes, The Effects of Good Government and The Effects of Bad Government. Note in the city where good government prevails are walls that contain people interacting in pleasant ways, all realms of society, socializing and doing business. In the center, a ring of young women dance, a symbol of the harmony of the just and civil city. Note the use of young women to symbolize harmony, order, and productivity. The inverse is true, as we have said about Eicha.
In the fresco about bad governance, the devil rules; for the Christians, the symbol of unnatural order.
What's interesting about Eicha and the Jewish conception, as we see in the pesukim [verses] below is God takes on the role of enemy -- the Assyrians aren't blamed, though they were the ones who destroyed the Temple. God is the warrior who shoots an arrow at His own daughter Zion because she has sinned. And Zion recognizes that (See 1:9).
Here we see how the grief slams against the form. The first pasuk [verse] introduces the acrostic -- the verse starts with an aleph -- but doing so creates an inverted sentence structure, so we wait for the subject of the sentence: who is alone? Oh, the city, now juxtaposed with "once great among nations." The inverted structure continues -- the natural order of things has been inverted by the devastation of losing our political, national, and religious home and also by grief -- and widow is juxtaposed with "great among nations." She that was once popular -- even as a princess, another popular figure, the celebrity of the ancient world -- is now a pariah.
Here is the adulterous woman, but the image proliferates: the adulterous woman doesn't think of her future. Acaharita alludes to children, especially when we consider that what typically clings to a woman's skirts are her babes.
The grief pours out of the poetic vessel at the end of the verse: the poet tries to contain the devastation in the metaphor, distancing himself with the use of third-person narration, but by the end of the verse, he's crying out in first person, lamenting his misery.
Ancient Near Eastern art
This is an artwork from the Assyrian empire, but in Eicha it is God who is the archer. Zion/Israel's sins have caused her devastation, leading to the unnatural act of God -- often depicted as Bnei Yisrael's groom or father killing His own bride or child.
Kings/rulers/gods in the ancient world measured out not only holy cities and cities, but justice and order. Again, against the natural order, God destroys His holy city as punishment for Zion/Israel's sins. Note the many verses, some of which I've chosen below, that show the unnaturalness of the destruction of Zion, how it goes against all natural order.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Effects of Good and Bad Government, fresco, 14th century, Siena, Italy
Paraphrasing Adele Berlin, Lamentations:
As a religious concept, joy is associated with sacrificial feasting, so conversely mourning equals an absence of sacrificing. Sacrifice and praise of God are parallel activities, so it follows that joy is associated with praising God.
The mourner can't participate in public joy, is not permitted access to the Temple. The cultic double, the lamenter, does not praise God in his time of trouble.
In Nach, descent into Sheol is the structural inversion of going up to the Temple, the symbolic entryway to heaven. To be in Sheol is to be at the farthest remove from God.
Death and mourning, as religious concepts, mean to be cut off from God, just as life and joy mean to be in God's presence.
After 506 BCE, exile is the new Sheol. Sefer Zechariah shows we were fasting after the churban [the destruction of the Temple]. Eicha is the lament. Sacrifice is accompanied by Tehilim [Psalms], while fasting on Tisha B'av is accompanied by Eicha, Lamentations.
The joy of the festival and its song and praises is replaced with fasting and a poem that at once tries to contain our grief and demonstrates that that grief cannot be contained. Without the Temple and in a state of dislocation and exile from God, we are inconsolable, and our grief knows no bounds. As Satan in Paradise Lost realizes when he has sinned and gotten himself ejected from Heaven, "Myself am Hell." How lowering and humbling.
We know the story does not end with Eicha. While we don't act -- as Hamlet does -- but enact and embody our mourning and grief on Tisha B'Av, we are at heart and soul an optimistic people. To every season, turn, turn, turn. This is our time to mourn, but soon we will be celebrating our festivals once more.
In the Land of Israel, thanks to organizations such as AMIT and women such as Mrs. Anita Scharf (A"H), we've not only made the land grow once more, we can take care of our children -- and restore that natural order.
I pray at this tense time in history that we continue to build, that we merit God's not destroying our work, and that all peoples of the world get to live in cities of peace, justice and order, as we did in Yerushalayim.
"Chadesh Yameinu K'kedem [Renew our days of old]."