Notes from the Moishe House Beit Midrash
Lamentations Chapter 5
Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed, not least because I didn't have coronium with me that day, and had to scrawl by hand.]
[See here for another talk by the same speaker giving an introduction to the structure of the Book of Lamentations; I didn't take down notes on that here, as it was information I already had.]
Chapter 5 of the Book of Lamentations lacks both the alphabetical acrostic (though it does have twenty-two verses) and themetre of the other chapters. It's also different in being written in the first person plural; the rest is in the first singular. Compare the voices of the first chapters, male and female. For many theologians the voice of Chapter 3 has been elevated to the central voice in the text—particularly for Christians—a suffering man. Chapter 3 is also the longest and most elaborately structured. Then comes Chapter 5; all scholars call this a communal lament.
To whom is this adressed? Each other? The next generation, which did not see the destruction?
Unlike in Job, and the rest of the, G-d never replies here.
A question that is never asked: In defining this as a communal lament, who is the community? And what is a communal voice? Does a community all speak together? Do they speak different things which get stitched together? Does someone falter and someone else pick it up?
One possibility: whoever ?elects to be part of the community. A second possibility: to be a represenation for all the voiceless.
Since the rest of the book is written in different voices but we here lose individuation, is this a trialogue of the other voices trying to speak together? [This is presented inline in the translation below.]
Verse 19 ("You, LORD, are enthroned for ever; Your throne is from generation to generation") is so different it seems like the text is speaking itself: different voices saying different things. This also may be a way into the last verse.
If we understand the last voice in terms of the rest of the chapter being a dialogue between the Daughter of Zion and the man who has known affliction; her voice is one of calling G-d to witness, but she never calls upon the people to repent. She rails against G-d. The man does do that. Maybe the communal lament [lacuna]
Lamentations 5:20 איכה ה כ
Remember, LORD, what is come upon us: behold, and see our reproach. Our inheritance is turned unto strangers, our houses unto aliens. We are become orphans and fatherless, our mothers are as widows.0 We have drunken our water for money; our wood comes to us for a price. To our very necks we are persued; we labour, and have no rest. We have given the hand to the Egyptians, and to the Assyrians, to have bread enough. Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities. Servants rule over us: there is none to deliver us out of their hand. We get our bread with the peril of our lives because of the sword of the wilderness. Our skin is hot like an oven because of the burning heat of the famine. They have ravished the women in Zion, the maidens in the cities of Judah. Princes are hanged up by their hand: the faces of elders are not honoured. The young men have borne the mill, and the children have stumbled under the wood.1 The elders have ceased from the gate, the young men from their music. The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning. The crown is fallen from our head: woe unto us, that we have sinned. For this our heart is faint; for these things our eyes are dim; For the mountain of Zion, which is desolate, the foxes walk upon it.
[The man:] You, LORD, are enthroned for ever;2 Your throne is from generation to generation.
[The daughter of Zion:] Wherefore do You forget us for ever, and forsake us so long time?
[G-d does not reply.3]
[The daughter of Zion:] Turn us4 unto You, LORD,
[The man hastily adds:] and we shall be turned;
renew our days as of old. But You have utterly rejected us; You are very wroth against us.5, 6
א זְכֹר יְהוָה מֶה־הָיָה לָנוּ הַבִּיטָה וּרְאֵה אֶת־חֶרְפָּתֵנוּ׃ ב נַחֲלָתֵנוּ נֶהֶפְכָה לְזָרִים בָּתֵּינוּ לְנָכְרִים׃ ג יְתוֹמִים הָיִינוּ וְאֵין אָב אִמֹּתֵינוּ כְּאַלְמָנוֹת׃ ד מֵימֵינוּ בְּכֶסֶף שָׁתִינוּ עֵצֵינוּ בִּמְחִיר יָבֹאוּ׃ ה עַל צַוָּארֵנוּ נִרְדָּפְנוּ יָגַעְנוּ וְלֹא הוּנַח־לָנוּ׃ ו מִצְרַיִם נָתַנּוּ יָד אַשּׁוּר לִשְׂבֹּעַ לָחֶם׃ ז אֲבֹתֵינוּ חָטְאוּ וְאֵינָם וַאֲנַחְנוּ עֲוֹנֹתֵיהֶם סָבָלְנוּ׃ ח עֲבָדִים מָשְׁלוּ בָנוּ פֹּרֵק אֵין מִיָּדָם׃ ט בְּנַפְשֵׁנוּ נָבִיא לַחְמֵנוּ מִפְּנֵי חֶרֶב הַמִּדְבָּר׃ י עוֹרֵנוּ כְּתַנּוּר נִכְמָרוּ מִפְּנֵי זַלְעֲפוֹת רָעָב׃ יא נָשִׁים בְּצִיּוֹן עִנּוּ בְּתֻלֹת בְּעָרֵי יְהוּדָה׃ יב שָׂרִים בְּיָדָם נִתְלוּ פְּנֵי זְקֵנִים לֹא נֶהְדָּרוּ׃ יג בַּחוּרִים טְחוֹן נָשָׂאוּ וּנְעָרִים בָּעֵץ כָּשָׁלוּ׃ יד זְקֵנִים מִשַּׁעַר שָׁבָתוּ בַּחוּרִים מִנְּגִינָתָם׃ טו שָׁבַת מְשׂוֹשׂ לִבֵּנוּ נֶהְפַּךְ לְאֵבֶל מְחֹלֵנוּ׃ טז נָפְלָה עֲטֶרֶת רֹאשֵׁנוּ אוֹי־נָא לָנוּ כִּי חָטָאנוּ׃ יז עַל־זֶה הָיָה דָוֶה לִבֵּנוּ--עַל־אֵלֶּה חָשְׁכוּ עֵינֵינוּ׃ יח עַל הַר־צִיּוֹן שֶׁשָּׁמֵם שׁוּעָלִים הִלְּכוּ־בוֹ׃
יט אַתָּה יְהוָה לְעוֹלָם תֵּשֵׁב כִּסְאֲךָ לְדוֹר וָדוֹר׃ כ לָמָּה לָנֶצַח תִּשְׁכָּחֵנוּ תַּעַזְבֵנוּ לְאֹרֶךְ יָמִים׃ כא הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם׃ כב כִּי אִם־מָאֹס מְאַסְתָּנוּ קָצַפְתָּ עָלֵינוּ עַד־מְאֹד׃
0. They are fatherless but have mothers; the young men have been taken off as slaves (v. 13): It is a community of women and children. In classical Greek literature the chorus are female. That's not quite the case here (grammar), but there may be a female preponderance.
1. The text becomes nostalgic after this point.
2. The tone changes here, from lament to prayer.
3. But didn't the Eternal say I shall not forget you? [Isaiah 20] But did not the Eternal say "I have forsaken you" and "I have forgotten you?"?
4. ?Msty we try andourselves, but she is too en?ourced in her suffering and needs G-d to do so for us.
5. Well, not really.
6. The man was struck down at that point. He can't pick them up; his voice was left to the community. We are left with just the rabbis' attempt to structure the reading, by re-reading the second last verse.
How much do we [lacuna]
And how is this voice transformed when we change the position of the text (use of v. 21 in the Torah service and the High Holydays)? Might this change how we read Lamentations? We are invited to read it as a prayer as part of our community.
Midrash Rabbah: Lamentations Prologue 241
Lamentations is one of the most quoted texts in the midrashic literature
Rabbi Yoḥanan opened his discourse with the text, The burden concerning the Valley of Vision (Isaiah 22:1); i.e. a valley concerning which all the seers prophesied, a valley from which all the seers originated. For R. Yoḥanan said: Any prophet whose place of origin is not specified was born in Jerusalem. "The Valley of Vision" [is so called] because they threw the words of the seers to the ground.
Therefore said I: Look away from Me,2 I will weep bitterly" [Isaiah 22:4]. R. Shimon b. Lakish said: On three occasions the Ministering Angels wished to utter song before the Holiness, be It blessed, but God would not let them, viz. [at the destruction of] the generation of the Flood, [at the overthrow of the Egyptians in] the Red Sea, and at the destruction of the Temple.3, 4 In connection with the generation of the Flood, what is written? And the Eternal One said: My spirit shall not abide in humanity forever5 [Gen. 6:3]. At the Red Sea it is written, And the one came not near the other all the night6 [Ex. 14:20]. At the destruction of the Temple it is written, "Therefore said I, Look away from Me,7 I will weep bitterly, strain not to comfort Me" [Isaiah 22:4]." It is not written "do not gather together" but "strain8 not" [which indicates that] the Holiness, be It blessed, said to the Ministering Angels, "The words of comfort which you offer to Me are insults to Me." For what reason [are they insults]? "For it is a day of trouble, and of trampling, and of perplexity for the Eternal One, the God of hosts" [Isaiah 22:5]: it is a day of confusion, a day of plundering, a day of weeping.
1. These are not midrash on a particular verse but on the book as a whole.
2. I.e. G-d—though this is Isaiah in the source text!
3. In the case of the last this must mean that G-d forbade the angels to utter their daily hymns on that occasion.
4. Reish Lakish is probably using the first Temple to talk about the destruction of the Second.
5. ידון "abide" is read as ירון "sing", and the word "spirit" is applied to G-d's messengers as in Psalm 104:4.
6. Explained by the rabbis as referring to the bands of angels who join in praise of G-d.
7. Supposedly addressed to the angels.
8. The root is אוץ, which is identified with נאץ "to insult"; hence "do not insult Me."
Who is crying? G-d. G-d refuses to be comforted. The three moments are not, ?linked by trouble of the Jews. The first two are linked by the mass destruction of human life. But what about the? G-d is talking not about the destruction of Jerusalem but about the Temple. The Temple was G-d's house; this is personal for G-d.
The Holiness, be It blessed, said to the Ministering Angels, "Come, let us go together and see what the enemy has done in My1 house." Immediately the Holiness, be It blessed, and the Ministering Angels went, Jeremiah leading the way. When the Holiness, be It blessed, saw the Temple, God said, "Certainly this is My house and this is My resting-place into which enemies have come, and they have done with it whatever they wished."2 At that time the Holiness, be It blessed, wept and said, "Woe is Me for My house! My children, where are you? My priests, where are you? My lovers, where are you? What shall I do with you, seeing that I warned you but you did not repent?" The Holiness, be It blessed, said to Jeremiah, "I am now like a man who had an only son, for whom he prepared a marriage-canopy, but he died under it.3 Do you not feel any anguish for Me and My children? Go, summon Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Moses4 from their graves, for they know how to weep."5 He spoke before God: "Sovereign of the Universe, I do not know where Moses is buried."6 The Holiness, be It blessed, replied to him: "Go, stand by the bank of the Jordan, and raise your voice and call out, 'Son of Amram, son of Amram, arise and behold your flock which enemies have devoured.'"
There and then Jeremiah went to the cave of Machpelah and said to the patriarchs of the world: "Arise, for the time has come when your presence is required before the Holiness, be It blessed." They said to him, "For what purpose?" He answered, "I know not", for he was afraid that they might say, "In your lifetime has such a thing happened to our children!"7 Jeremiah left them, and stood by the bank of the Jordan and called out, "Son of Amram, son of Amram, arise, the time has come when your presence is required before the Holiness, be It blessed." [Moses] said to [Jeremiah], "How is this day different from other days that my presence is required before the Holiness, be It blessed?" Jeremiah replied, "I know not." Moses left him and proceeded to the Ministering Anguish whom he recognised from the time of the giving of the Torah. He said to them, "O celestial ministers, do you know why my presence is required before the Holiness, be It blessed?" They replied, "Son of Amram, don't you know that the Temple is destroyed and Israel gone into exile?" He cried aloud and wept until he reached the patriachs. They immediately also rent their garments, placed their hands upon their heads, and cried out and wept until they arrived at the gates of the Temple. When the Holiness, be It blessed, saw them, immediately "In that day did the Eternal One, the God of hosts, call to weeping, and to lamentation, and to baldness, and to girding with sackcloth"8 [Isaiah 22:12]. Were it not explicitly stated in Scripture, it would be impossible to say such a thing,9 but they went weeping from one gate to another like a man whose dead is lying before him, and the Holiness, be It blessed, lamented saying, "Woe to the King Who succeeded in His youth but failed in His old age!"10
1. Not the place where the people come.
2. Did G-d not know this would happen?
3. The marriage is between G-d and Israel, but only are they under the chuppah now?
4. Normally we use these names to get G-d on our side. Here G-d is almost reversing it. G-d considers them as nearest and dearest.
5. Why does G-d need ?backup? They are the human face.
6. Jeremiah trying to cop out? Now, Moses did die under the chuppah.
7. Even though he was the prophet on duty!
8. This is completely out of context (q.v. the next verse).
9. That everyone and G-d are mourning in this very specific way. The very notion that G-d should lament is striking! It was G-d who allowed the enemies to do this! (Cf. Lamentation again.)
10. This is G-d! The Midrash is saying that G-d is powerless? The victim of His own plots? Because the people let him down, G-d is ?proud and allowed the destruction of the Temple.
The rabbis did not imag[in]e because it happened again in their own recent past. They are trying to discover that G-d, whom they need, who will weep with them, in the Biblical text. Also, the Christians have a god that suffered for them; the rabbis needed one such too.