The biblical book of Lamentations, as its name indicates, is a lament for the suffering endured by the Jewish population of Jerusalem during and after the tragic destruction in 587 BCE of Judah’s capital city. In this, the biblical book of Lamentations, is not dissimilar from the much earlier lament for the suffering of the Babylonians during the destruction of the Babylonian capital: Erech. What makes Lamentations unique is its theology; and more explicitly, its theodicy.
Much of the book is a lament over the suffering people of Jerusalem, and the shame of their defeat and destruction of the country of Judea. But some of the book presents a powerful and radical attack on the pious concept that God must surely protect his people and his sanctuary.
The first seven verses of chapter two read like a diatribe. “Alas! The Lord in His wrath has shamed the daughter of Zion; cast down from heaven to earth the majesty of Israel. God did not remember his footstool (Temple) on the day of His wrath. The Lord laid waste without pity all the habitations of Jacob; razing in anger the strongholds of the daughter of Zion; bringing low in dishonor the kingdom and its leaders.
“In blazing anger God cut down all the might of Israel; withdrew His right hand in the presence of the foe; ravaging Jacob like a flaming fire, consuming all around it… God poured out wrath like fire in the tent (Temple) of the daughter of Zion.
“The Lord acted like a foe; laid waste to Israel; laid waste all her citadels, destroyed her strongholds; increasing within the daughter of Israel, mourning and moaning. God stripped his Sukkah (Temple) like a garden; destroyed His Tabernacle. The Lord erased in Zion festival and Sabbath; in raging anger spurned king and priest. The Lord has rejected His alter, disdained His sanctuary; handed over to the foe the walls of its citadels. They (the enemy soldiers) gave a shout in the House of the Lord like on a festival day.”
It would be hard to find an open rejection of Temple triumphalism, dynastic arrogance, Jerusalem chauvinism and national religious self righteousness; stronger than this.
Rather than just curse our enemies; Jewish tradition prefers to find the fault within ourselves.
Nowhere in the latter books of the Bible, in the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls or in the early writings of the rabbinic sages, do we find words of rejoicing over the subsequent downfall of the Babylonian enemy who destroyed Jerusalem: or expressing satisfaction that the Babylonian Temple of Marduk, destroyed by the Persians in 539 BCE, was now also a ruin, while our Temple had been rebuilt.
The same attitude informed the response of the rabbis following the second destruction of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple. No Jewish text expresses joy over the decline and destruction of the great Pan Hellenic sanctuaries of Delphi and Olympia or the sacking of Rome.
Indeed, there is no mention of the two great sacks of Rome in rabbinic literature. The first looting of Rome was by the Visigoths exactly 340 years after a Roman army destroyed Jerusalem, in August of 410, when Rome was looted for three days. The mausoleum of Hadrian, the general who led the army that besieged Jerusalem, was ransacked.
Almost 100.000 Romans fled the ruined city. The sack was a major shock to contemporaries, friends and foes of the Empire alike. This was the first time in almost 800 years that Rome had fallen to an enemy. St. Jerome, living then in Bethlehem, wrote gleefully: ”The City which had taken the whole world, was itself taken.”
The Second Sack of Rome, this time by the Vandals, was in August of 455, was exactly 385 years after the destruction of Jerusalem. The Vandals sacked Rome for 14 days. No one laments the two major sacks of Rome today; but Jews still remember the two destructions of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple.
May we also remember the insights of our sages, who focused on our own internal sectarian hatreds as the source of our ancient tragedies, and did not simply curse our enemies.