Cross-posted to State of Formation.
11My eyes are spent with tears
My heart is in tumult,
My being melts away
Over the ruin of my poor people,
As babes and sucklings languish
In the squares of the city.
12They keep asking their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?
As they languish like battle-wounded
In the squares of the town,
As their life runs out
In their mothers’ bosoms.
The book of Lamentations (or, in Hebrew, Megillat Eicha) is one of the Hebrew canon’s five megillot, or scrolls, which are read at different points in the Jewish liturgical cycle. In the Tanakh, it is situated between Ruth and Ecclesiastes; in Christian Bibles it is found between Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Traditionally read in synagogue on Tisha B’Av, (the fast commemorating the destruction of the Temple), Lamentations begins with a question—Eicha: How?!
It describes the wreckage of a besieged Jerusalem in the wake of the
destruction of the first temple, and its imagery would not be out of
place in a horror movie: the old and the young alike, filthy and
starving in the streets, children asking for sustenance that is not
there, mothers eating their babies. This desolation and suffering is
contrasted with Jerusalem’s former glory: “They that fed on dainties are
desolate in the streets; they that were brought up in scarlet embrace
We wonder what could possibly have caused this suffering and horror, but the scroll’s initial eicha
is a rhetorical one: almost immediately, we learn that “Jerusalem has
grievously sinned.” (1:8) The calamity is a consequence of human
immorality, and the nations who have sacked the city and destroyed the
temple are instruments of God’s justice and wrath. When there still
might have been time to correct course, Jerusalem’s seers “did not
expose your iniquity, so as to restore your fortunes, but prophesied to
you oracles of deception and delusion.” (2:14) The only response, the
text exhorts, is repentance; but this can only happen with divine help:
“turn us unto you, O Adonai, and we shall be turned.” (5:21)
The verses quoted above describe in heartrending detail the suffering
of the people in the besieged city. The town centers, once atria of
commerce and activity, have become charnel houses: people come together
there not to socialize, but to die. The verses give particular attention
to the suffering of children. Even the weak and innocent among the
people are not spared the consequence of Israel’s sin: “As babes and
sucklings languish in the squares of the city, They keep asking their
mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’” Calamity has upended natural
orders. Parents, who are supposed to provide for their children and keep
them safe, cannot. Children, who should not know want or violence,
“languish like battle-wounded.” Even the epitome of refuge and
nourishment has run dry: the lives of children “run out in their
Even the narrator (identified in multiple traditions, though not by
modern scholarship, as the prophet Jeremiah) is not immune: “My eyes are
spent with tears, my heart is in tumult, my being melts away”—the
Hebrew for which phrase literally reads “my liver spills on the
ground”—“at the ruin of my poor people.” Is his suffering sympathetic?
Does he watch from afar, echoing his people’s torment in his own psyche?
Or is it literal? Is his physical being actually melting away, the
churning of his innards his body’s response to starvation and the
pestilence that comes with widespread death? Even in the midst of his
own slow demise, is he able to feel sorrow for his fellow humans, to
think past his own survival instinct and toward moral behavior?
This Tisha b'Av, the extreme heat many of us are experiencing
in North America forces us to confront the reality of climate change and
the consequences of environmental degradation. Generally speaking,
Lamentations is not the first book that comes to mind when one is asked
what the Tanakh has to say about the environment. Yet, I believe
that this text has some significant things to say about environmental
ethics—specifically about the consequences of environmental destruction for humans. (We might thank the recent film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for bringing this aspect of the issue into the public consciousness).
These particular verses point us, I would suggest, in three specific
directions. First, the wrenching description of how the people of
Jerusalem suffer for lack of basic resources pushes us, to appropriate
Jonathan Schofer’s words, to “[confront] vulnerability as a basis for
ethics.” (Schofer, 2010, 187) As physical beings, we cannot live, or
flourish, or serve God if the basic needs of our bodily survival are not
met-- and the resources that enable us to meet these needs come from
the world that God has created.
Second, in emphasizing the particular suffering of children, the text
reminds us that our actions have consequences for the innocent. Even if
we decided that particular people who behave immorally deserve
everything they get as a result, this text forces us to see that they
are not the only people punished for their behavior.
Third, the perspective of the narrator, whichever way we decide to
interpret it, reminds us that there is still room for empathy and moral
choice within a crisis, even one as grave as we see here. If the
narrator is watching from afar and suffers in the abstract, we learn
that we can feel for and try to ameliorate the suffering of others, no
matter how grievously they have sinned. And if the narrator is speaking
from the midst of the horror, we learn that, even in the most
dehumanizing situations, there is nevertheless room for humanity.
A version of this essay was presented on March 16, 2012, at the Mid-Atlantic AAR regional meeting in New Brunswick, NJ.
This image, by Gustav Dore, is in the public domain and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.