sillhouette of a dead tree in the desert
Image by Eric Bézine via Wikimedia Commons.

The Key Word of the Book of Lamentations

Eicha is both the Hebrew title of this biblical book and the word that best helps us understand what it really means.

The key to the lamenter’s stance is concealed in one word — eikh or eikhah, “how” — a word that opens the Scroll of Lamentations and reappears at crucial junctures within it: “How [Eikhah] lonely sits the city, once great with people.” 

In its first appearance the eikh is used in David’s lament over the death of Jonathan at the hands of Plishtim: “Your glory, O Israel, Lies slain on your heights; How [eikh] have the mighty fallen!” (Samuel 2:19). And much later in Ezekiel’s vivid and horrifying prophecy of the fall of Tyre, the eikh plays a pivotal role: “And they shall intone a kinah [dirge] over you, and shall say to you: Eikh [How] you have perished, you who were peopled from the seas” (Ezekiel 26:17). Subsequent Jewish lamentations, from those of the great sixth-century poet Eliezer ha-Kalir to the eleventh century medieval Ashkenazi lamentations following the massacres of the Crusades, would come back again and again to this haunting eikhah to express the basic stance of the lamenter.

The biblical eikh is not a locution aimed at seeking information, in the way that “how” is used by a modern speaker, asking, for example, “How do you say ‘table’ in French?” and so on. Examining two biblical “hows,” uttered by Moses and Joseph, respectively, will illuminate the particular biblical use of eikh: “But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying, ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how [eikh] then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech’” (Exodus 6.12). Moses is not looking for information from God, he is making a rhetorical argument that uses “how” as a term of contrast — if the people of Israel don’t listen to me, how would Pharaoh the great evil king listen to me, who is anyhow impeded in speech! A question mark shouldn’t follow this “how,” and if there is one it must immediately be followed by an exclamation mark. Similarly, Joseph’s resistance to the urgings of Potiphar’s wife to sleep with her is accompanied by a resounding rhetorical “how”: “But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?’” (Genesis 39.8–9; my emphasis). The biblical “how” should always be accompanied by a “then” or a “could” — “how then,” or “how could.” It is in the sense of a bewildered protest that the “how” is used in the lamentation, always accompanied by a claim that makes the event astonishing and unexplainable: “How [Eikh] have the mighty fallen?!” Emphasis must be placed on the mightiness of the fallen. In the opening Scroll of Lamentations the Eikhah is again used by way of contrast: “How lonely sits the city, once great with people.” If the city hadn’t once been great with people, the sting of the bewildered cry — “how lonely” — would have been much less painful. It is the contrast that situates the lamenter in the stance of bewildered protest, or perhaps bewildered outrage, or perhaps bewildered brokenness. The lamenter is not seeking an explanation, his “how” in its particular biblical usage precedes the why; it might as well trump it altogether.

Eulogy [hesped] is a reaction to a loss invoked in the response of Abraham to the death of Sarah, and that of the sons of Jacob who bewailed the day of their father’s burial. These are moments of great sadness and sorrow but not of lament. The responses to the deaths of Sarah and Jacob lack the element of bewilderment — old people are supposed to die, this is the way of the world. The bewildered protest implied in the “how” of lament would be inappropriate here. But the death of Jonathan, the mighty young hero, was a shattering moment, and Jerusalem, the beautiful populous city, should not have been devastated. The “how” of the lament expresses not a loss, but a trauma; it is an expression of the undermining of our capacity to read reality as a whole. In its more acute form such a “how” is an expression of the trauma of abuse, in which the affliction originates from the hand of the father who was supposed to be the protector, providing loving shelter from the sorrows of the world. Abuse undermines the basic trust involved in understanding the world and in forming expectations; it therefore resides on the borders of madness.

In the second chapter of the Scroll of Lamentations, which begins as well with an eikhah, God is described as the enemy: “He bent his bow like an enemy, posed His right hand like foe. He slew all who delighted the eye. He poured out His wrath like fire in the Tent of Fair Zion” (Lamentations 2.4). The bewilderment of the first “how,” referring to the destruction of the great, seemingly secure city, shows the trauma of the event. It came down from the hand of a supposedly loyal protector. Destruction is experienced as an instance of abuse.

A mourner experiences loneliness. His beloved is gone, he has lost the umbilical cord that had bound him to the world. His state of solitude is intensified by the immense gulf between his inner experience of loss and the world around him, which seems to proceed as always, with no moment of pause, as if nothing had happened. It is no wonder that in the Talmud the rituals of mourning are modeled after the practices of the outcast and the banned. The mourner doesn’t shave or bathe, doesn’t wear clean clothes, and is not allowed to leave his home; he loses his social persona, and withdraws in solitude from the world. The consolers who come to the mourner try to woo him back to the world; they extend their hands to him as if to replace the hand that had been stretched to him from the world but is there no more. They share in his pain, providing him with an echo of his inner experience of grief, affirming some parallel between his inner state and the outside world. They are supposed to bring him back to the world to redeem him from his solitude.

The lamenter endures a completely different experience of solitude. Her loneliness is portrayed immediately after the initial “how” of the lament in the first verse of the Scroll of Lamentations: “how lonely sits the city.” Loneliness is the first thing that comes after the initial “how.” The solitude of the lamenter is very different from that of the mourner; it is grounded in a complete inability to read reality or the world. The lamenter has no comfort, since comforters are also suspect. If God can become the enemy, then who can be trusted? “There is none to comfort her from all of her friends; all of her allies have betrayed her. They have become her foes” (Lamentations 1.2). The maddening aspect of this kind of abuse is that it has been inflicted at home, where protection should have been the norm. It causes a complete loss of the capacity to read reality. 

From reading the complex and rich liturgical poetry of lament one thing becomes clear. Lamentation is not a state of shock in which the bearer of devastation or its witness surrenders to muteness, or lapses into utter silence. Lament doesn’t reside in the realm of the ineffable, having recourse only to the broken pre-linguistic syllables of pain such as “oy” or “vay.” In lamentation, language operates in full gear, reality doesn’t make sense anymore, everyone has betrayed, but language has stayed intact; it is the only weapon left. The posture of bewildered, isolated protest sharpens the expressive capacities; over generations of lamentation liturgy, poetry unfortunately has reached an insurmountable height. The author of the Scroll (like so many other poetic expressions of lamentations following his form) organizes his laments in alphabetical order, as if to enlist the full spectrum of language in his defiant mode, as if to say: “Here I am, not in shock, not at all mute. I will call upon all available linguistic resources to declare my truth. Since everything was destroyed there is nothing to lose but what is left of my integrity.” Lamentation has a wise quality of reflection in which the lamenter’s ability to penetrate and describe her experiences are not blurred by excruciating pain.

Careful study of the Scroll of Lamentations reveals what is perhaps the most striking feature of this resonating “how.” In its bewildered mode it aims, as well, to address and undermine the ways in which the tradition attempts to make sense of pain and destruction. In its approach to theodicy — the main traditional structure of making sense of suffering — the Scroll of Lamentations takes a very deep and original position. Unlike the other great challenger of theodicy — the book of Job — in Lamentations there is no denial of sin. Job’s defiance is based on his confidence in his innocence, an innocence affirmed by God himself at the end of the book. In his call for justice, Job seeks an explanation and perhaps an apology; he was punished for no reason, he is innocent. But the author of Lamentations does not deny the fact of sin. Jerusalem was indeed corrupt (it is difficult to defend the innocence of a collective). The prophets had described the state of corruption and crime in the city before its destruction, they had warned of the coming catastrophe. There is no point in denying sin, and our lamenter is not choosing that road in his protest. Yes, the people have sinned, but the punishment was too harsh, the threats have materialized in too literal a form. Even worse, the harsh punishment didn’t occur in a moment of anger and loss of control: it felt like it was meticulously planned and executed, it was too thorough, too comprehensive. As if someone had been waiting for the moment of sin, so that punishment could be unleashed like an ambush:

All around me He has built Misery and hardship; He has made

me dwell in darkness, like those long dead. He has walled me

in and I cannot break out; He has weighed me down with

chains. And when I cry and plead, He shuts out my prayer; He

has walled in my ways with hewn blocks. He has made my

paths a maze. He is a lurking bear to me, a lion in hiding. He

has forced me off my way and mangled me. He has me numb.

He has bent His bow and made me the target of His arrows.

Lamentations 3.5–12

The image of God as lurking bear and hiding lion patiently waiting to attack his prey is one of the most shattering and striking images ever produced in biblical literature. It is a bitter testimony to the richness of the poetic power enlisted to express that bewildered protest encapsulated by the eikhah.

This article has been excerpted from the first chapter of Lament in Jewish Thought: Philosophical, Theological, and Literary perspectives, edited by Ilit Ferber and Paula Schwebel.

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