Tzvi Novick
Tzvi Novick

Sinking and surfacing on Tisha B’Av

The experience of the Ninth of Av is defined by a word: eykhah “How.”  The first word of the scroll of Lamentations is eykhah, and chapters 2 and 4 likewise open with this word.  For the Sabbath before the Ninth of Ab, both the parashah (Deuteronomy 1:12) and the haftarah (Isaiah 1:21) feature verses that begin with eykhah.  And yet these eykhahs are in no way all the same.  In fact, they contain opposites.

The primal eykhah, the first eykhah in the Bible, is the one from the parashah, Deuteronomy 1:12.  Moses, near his death, recalls Israel’s departure from Sinai, with the land of Canaan as the people’s intended destination.  Moses reports that when God directed them to leave Sinai, he suddenly felt the burden of the nation fall upon him: “And I said to you at that time: I cannot bear you by myself.” (Deuteronomy 1:9)[1]  There were too many of them.  God be praised that they were so fertile, and may God make them more fertile still, but there were too many of them.  “How can I bear by myself your weight, your burden, your strife?” (Deuteronomy 1:12)  This is the overwhelmed eykhah, the eykhah of despair.  It is the eykhah of a man who cannot sleep from worry, who does not know how he will manage the next day.

Compare this to the eykhah with which Lamentations begins.  “How is it that she sits by herself, the city that was many-peopled?” (Lamentations 1:1)  As in the case of Moses’ eykhah, the basic opposition is between a large populace and an isolated (le-vadi, badad) individual.  And yet the perspectives of the two verses are very different.  Moses’ eykhah occurs in the first-person: The speaker perceives his own isolation.  But in Lamentations, the speaker is not the one who sits by himself: The loneliness belongs to the city that the speaker observes.  The posture of the speaker, by contrast, is fundamentally analytical.  He observes the difference between what was (the bustling city) and what is now (the lonely city).  His eykhah expresses not the feeling of being overwhelmed, but a sense of incomprehensibility: What he sees does not “compute.”

The difference between the overwhelmed eykhah of Moses and the incomprehending eykhah of Lamentations is a matter of subject position.  The “I” is at the center of the overwhelmed eykhah, or more precisely, the “I” is at the bottom, paralyzed by the weight of the world on top of it.  The incomprehending eykhah does not feature the “I.”  In fact, there is only a short step from the incomprehending eykhah to the incomprehension of the sublime, and the sublime is characterized precisely by the disappearance of the “I.”  When we see the ocean, in its vastness, or when we really look at a flower and perceive its impossible intricacy, we “lose” ourselves in the moment, we cease to think of ourselves, and we dwell instead in our incomprehension.  The incomprehending eykhah of Lamentations, insofar as it approaches the experience of the sublime, is something like the opposite of the overwhelmed eykhah of Moses.

Despite this contrast, the subject position of the overwhelmed eykhah does occur in Lamentations.  It does not find expression through the word eykhah, or in the chapters headed by this word, but it is realized precisely and poignantly in the third chapter of the scroll.  “I am the man who has seen suffering through the rod of His wrath.  It was me whom He drove, and brought to darkness without light.  Only against me did He turn, hand this way and that, all day.” (Lamentations 3:1-3)  The speaker’s first person occurs immediately and pervasively in these verses, despairing and overwhelmed.  Like Moses, he feels alone; Rashi rightly paraphrases “only against me” with le-vadi “by myself.”

To feel overwhelmed is to feel like one is sinking, drowning.  William Cowper, a late 18th century predecessor of the great Romantics, Wordsworth and Coleridge, wrote a poem called the “Castaway,” inspired by a news story of a drowning.  The poet, in his own despair, identifies with the victim.

No voice divine the storm allay’d,

No light propitious shone;

When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,

We perish’d, each alone:

But I beneath a rougher sea,

And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.

There is a paradox here.  The poet sympathetically identifies with the drowned man, and yet the sense of drowning, of being overwhelmed, necessarily thrusts his own “I” to the forefront, and forces him apart from that very man, so that they perish “each alone.”

How do we escape the feeling of being overwhelmed?  How do we surface, find solid ground?  I offer three observations, two grounded in Moses’ eykhah, and one in the monologue of Lamentations 3.  Note first that Moses details his troubles.  The Bible is famous for its verbal economy, yet Moses expends three words in describing what he confronts: “weight”; “burden”; and “strife.”  It is important, as a first step, to be able to name what weighs on us, to individuate.  An undifferentiated sea of troubles can shrink in size when it is divided into discrete parts.  Second, Moses immediately recognizes that there are others who can share his burden: “Give yourselves wise, discerning, and reputable men for your tribes, and I will set them above you.” (Deuteronomy 1:13)  The sense of loneliness, of an “I” utterly isolated, can be overcome by appreciating that this sense does not altogether correspond to reality.

The third and perhaps the most interesting strategy comes from Lamentations 3.  The speaker’s despair reaches its nadir in the sixth strophe.  He says that his hope is gone, and perhaps even more strikingly, that he has forgotten good (nashiti tovah) (Lamentations 3:17).  The turning point comes immediately after, in the seventh strophe (Lamentations 3:18-21), which is defined, in contrast to the forgetting of the sixth strophe, by verbs of memory: “Remember” (zekhor); “my soul continuously remembers (zakhor tizkor)”; “I call to mind.”  By the end of this strophe, “I have hope.”  What has happened here?  What has allowed the speaker to surface from his despair?  The overwhelmed “I” is paralyzed, stuck.  He cannot imagine a future in which he is not weighed down by his troubles.  Nor is it easy to recall the past, to think back to a time when he was not so burdened.  And yet it is slightly easier to recall the past than to envision the future; after all, the past is already stored in us, as memory.  And so the speaker breaks the paralysis, dislodges himself from the present, by remembering.  And having gotten unstuck, if only a little, he can now even hope for the future.

There are many things that can overwhelm us.  The pain of Jewish history, for those sensitive enough to perceive it in their subjectivity.  The world’s many troubles, for anyone who reads a newspaper.  Our own personal crises and sorrows.  May we may find the strength, in ourselves and with others, to surface.

[1] For translations from the Bible I consult but often diverge from the NRSV.

About the Author
Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in early rabbinic literature, and on pre-medieval liturgical poetry.
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