Eicha: a Handbook for Hope

Photo: Gil Be'eri, after Evgeni Tcherkasski, Pixabay

Crying while reading the book of Eicha—Lamentations— is not a challenging endeavor. The book of Eicha riddled with the heartbreak and tragedy so associated with the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The graphic descriptions of mothers eating the flesh of their own children out of hunger and despair, the helpless children pleading for nourishment, young men being harnessed into slavery, women violated, all paint a terrifying picture. The horrors of destruction can evoke nothing but sadness and heartbreak as we mourn the devastation our nation experienced the strikingly similar destructions of the first and second temple, followed by our expulsion from Jerusalem. Yet in the same book of Eicha, there is an often-overlooked element of hope, which should be integral to our Tisha Be’ Av experience as the side of mourning.

The overlooked elements of hope in the book of Eicha are often not seen because they follow the extensive descriptions of terror and destruction. Yet it is important to note that almost every section of Eicha describing a phase of loss and destruction, also has a call to action; sometimes it is a call for retribution against our oppressors, while others call for a spiritual reconciliation. 

After famously lamenting her loneliness, “eicha yashva badad— O how has the city that was once so populous remained lonely!” (Eicha 1:1), Judea ends the chapter with an ask:

“Behold, O Lord, for I am in distress, my innards burn, my heart is turned within me, for I have grievously rebelled… They have heard how I sigh, [and] there is none to comfort me, all my enemies have heard of my trouble [and] are glad that You have done it; [if only] You had brought the day that You proclaimed [upon them] and let them be like me.” (Eicha 1:20-21)

The disconnect between God and his people that led to the destruction of Judea is finally being addressed; the conversation begins. Judea turns, albeit with great pain, to God. She recognizes she has sinned; she recognizes where her pain is coming from. A conversation between the estranged husband and wife, in this case, God and Judea, begins.  

The same thing happens in the next chapter of Eicha. After the harrowing agony, morning the death and destruction it has experienced, Judea is appalled by its bitter predicament. It seems as if there is no mercy, no mitigation, and that God applies the harshest measures to her. Yet, in a sudden turn, Judea stops citing God as the source of unforgiving punishment. It recognizes God for his mercy: 

“Their heart cried out to the Lord: “O wall of the daughter of Zion! Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night, give yourself no respite, let the pupil of your eye not rest! Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord; lift up your hands to Him [and pray] for the lives of your infants, who faint because of hunger at the head of every street.”

Judea recognizes the profundity of her predicament, yet at the same time, it acknowledges that the source of its recovery will also come from God. Once again, it is the beginning of a dialogue. With the voice of a loving friend, a narrator urges Judea to pour out its heart to a merciful God, a God who cares about its pain and will heed her cry. 

Yet perhaps most potent of all is the message conveyed to us in the third chapter of the book. The chapter begins describing an unbridgeable disconnect between God and Judea:

“I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath. …So I said, “Gone is my life, and my expectation from the Lord.” (chapter 3) 

Judea despairs from God. It seems like it has lost all hope. not only does Judea feel God has forgotten her, she even feels targeted by God. “Though I cry out and plead, He shuts out my prayer…. He is to me a bear lying in wait, a lion in hiding”. How can there be hope if targeted by God Himself? If there is ever a time to despair, now would be most proper. 

Yet in a one hundred- and eighty-degrees reversal, we suddenly hear words that are to kindle the flame of hope in Jewish hearts. Words that inspire hope in the hearts of many to this very day:

“This I reply to my heart; therefore, I have hope. Verily, the kindnesses of the Lord never cease! Indeed, His mercies never fail! They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul; “therefore I will hope in Him. The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord”

This shocking turn of attitude leaves the reader speechless. Judea and the Jewish people go from feeling God is against them, yet suddenly is infused with optimism and hope. 

While the simple reading of the verses implies the knowledge of God’s kindness as the source of hope, the Midrash, struggling this very question, gives shares a parable to explain this. 

“Rabbi Abba, son of Kahana, said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: this can be compared to a king who married a distinguished woman, writing her a Ketubah (marriage agreement) guaranteeing her vast amounts of money. The King also told her about the royal wedding he will be making for her and the great celebrations they will have. In the meantime, the King went on a trip overseas [and did not return for a while]. The woman’s neighbors would come in and tease her, saying: “the king has abandoned you, and gone abroad, never to return”, as she would cry and moan. Yet as she would go back home she would open her Ketubah (marriage agreement) and read about the treasures the King was going to give her and the elaborate plans for an auspicious wedding and the many gifts he was planning on giving her. One day, the King returned. The King told her: “my dear, I wonder how is it possible that you were able to wait for me all those years?!” She responded: Your Highness unless you would have left me that Ketubah (marriage agreement) with all of the details, my neighbors would have dissuaded me from waiting”. So too, when the nations of the world harass the Jewish people and say: “your God has hidden His face from you, abandoned you, and is never returning, they mourn and cry yet once Israel enters synagogues and study halls and read the Torah, they are comforted. When the time of the redemption comes God will tell Israel: “my children, I wonder: how were you able to wait for me all those years?” 

In the Midrash the children of Israel respond using these very words from Eicha :” This I reply to my heart; therefore, I have hope.” and continue by saying: “If it were not for the Torah, we would not have hope.” when the verse refers to “this”, as the source of Israel’s hope, in this reading, refers to the Torah, inspiring hope in this face of the great tragedies the Jewish people. 

Another way of looking at this radically shifting perspective is to recognize the legitimacy of our feelings. Jeremiah the prophet recognized the enormous feelings of pain and despair. When Judah is expelled with devastating consequences it zeros in on the devastating destruction, the unthinkable horrors, and the unbelievable suffering. Yet as reality sets in, and destruction takes place, Judea realizes it is the reality of life. It recognizes that in all the loss and devastation, there is hope. As the saying goes: Hope, sometimes that’s all you have when you have nothing else. If you have it, you have everything.”

Judea recognizes what the Jewish people have come to symbolize throughout our painful history: even in the bleakest times, we must shine a beacon of hope. That is the contrast of Eicha. It is the book of Lamentations, riddled with hope. Even when it makes no sense, and devastation is striking with its full force, we must make sure we keep our hope up. 

This contrast between a feeling of abandonment by God and hope for His justice continues in the fourth chapter of Eicha.

“Better off were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, for they ooze, pierced by the fruits of the field.” (chapter 4:9)

The description of the horror, continue to come with the pairing recognition, suffering is not arbitrary:

“[The punishment of] your iniquity is complete, O daughter of Zion; He will no longer send you into exile; [but] your iniquity, O daughter of Edom, He shall punish-He will reveal your sins. (Chapter 4:22)

So profound is the pain of exile; Zion cannot fathom it will ever be punished again for these sins. Zion recognizes its fate has been inflicted on it due to sins, shortcomings, and discord with God. It hopes that its punishers are not rewarded with impunity; it hopes they are treated with the same standards it now sees as just and reciprocal.

Yet nothing is more distant to the hopelessness of the first chapter of Eicha, like the last chapter of Eicha, a chapter filled with communication and hope for a brighter future. The chapter begins with the Jewish people exclaiming: 

“Recall, O Lord, what has befallen us; behold and see our disgrace. (5:1)

 Unlike previous chapters that begin with Judea’s solemn mourning and loneliness, she now approaches God and speaks directly; she appeals for sympathy, empathy, and for God to recognize the harshness of her predicament. 

“For this, our heart has become faint, for these things our eyes have grown dim. For Mount Zion, which has become desolate; foxes prowl over it. [But] You, O Lord, remain forever; Your throne endures throughout the generations. (5:17)

Why do You forget us forever, forsake us so long?

Restore us to You, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.”

And so, the book that had begun lamenting its loneliness, “eicha yashva badad— O how has the city that was once so populous remained lonely!” (Eicha 1:1), concludes with an appeal for reconciliation. Refusing to embrace distance from God, the nation that began lamenting the many friends it has lost seeks to return only to God. While the pain of loneliness in the immediate aftermath of destruction as inflicted by being isolated from her fellow nations, Judea and Zion seeks reunification with no one other than God Himself. A book so known for lamenting the tragedies of destruction concludes by imbuing us with hope for a better and brighter future. Yes, Eicha is the book of Lamentations, but it is also the book of hope. It is a book that transforms us from feeling God is indifferent to our troubles, to recognizing God sees our pain and knows why it is happening. Altering our understanding of tragedy, Eicha teaches us our pain does not exist in an abyss, nor is it ignored. Eicha is what taught the Jewish people that no matter how bad things are, they will get better. Hashivenu

“Restore us to You, Hashem, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.”

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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