Shiur #36: Eikha: Chapter 3 (continued)

  • Dr. Yael Ziegler
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IN LOVING MEMORY OF
Jeffrey Paul Friedman z"l
August 15, 1968 – July 29, 2012
לע"נ
 ז"ל יהודה פנחס בן הרב שרגא פייוועל 
כ"ב אב תשכ"ח – י' אב תשע"ב
ת.נ.צ.ב.ה
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Eikha 3:4-6
 
בִּלָּ֤ה בְשָׂרִי֙ וְעוֹרִ֔י
שִׁבַּ֖ר עַצְמוֹתָֽי
 
בָּנָ֥ה עָלַ֛י וַיַּקַּ֖ף
רֹ֥אשׁ וּתְלָאָֽה
 
בְּמַחֲשַׁכִּ֥ים הוֹשִׁיבַ֖נִי
כְּמֵתֵ֥י עוֹלָֽם
 
He has worn away my flesh and my skin
He has broken my bones
 
He has built against me and encircled [me]
[with] poison and hardship
 
He has made me dwell in darkness
Like the eternal dead
 
Daily beatings take their toll upon the gever, wearing away his flesh and skin and shattering his bones.[1] Unable to move and surrounded on all sides by perils, the gever feels trapped and immobile; darkness closes in on him as though he is entombed.[2]
                                                                                                                             
The gever flails in different directions, employing metaphors and figurative language in his bid to convey the breadth and depth of his afflictions. The expression banah alai evokes a siege (II Kings 25:1; Devarim 20:20),[3] such that the gever’s physical afflictions align with the trials of a city. The physical deterioration of his body may also mirror the breakdown of a city, whose internal infrastructure is crushed (like his pulverized bones), and whose external barricades (like his flesh and skin) are peeled away and rendered dysfunctional.
 
The phrase shibar atzmotai, “he broke my bones,” clearly indicates that his tormentor inflicts excessive violence upon him. Yet it also may convey a slow demise by debilitating disease, as in the case of Hezekiah, who utilizes this phrase to describe the agonies of his illness (Isaiah 38:13).
 
Darkness can signify imprisonment in biblical passages (e.g. Tehillim 107:14), alongside the explicit metaphor of death (“like the eternal dead”).[4] The peeling away of the gever’s flesh suggests the post-mortem rotting of his body (Iyov 13:28). The gever’s torments do not merely threaten him with imminent death, but actually simulate its horror.  By employing language that conveys various types of hardships (siege, sickness, imprisonment, death), the gever expresses the range, depth, and intensity of his experience. Rich use of figurative language also allows the gever’s personal situation to be meaningful and applicable to a broad array of suffering individuals, each of whom can find an aspect of his own experience in the gever’s tale.
 
Bila Besari Ve-Ori
 
At this point in the chapter, the gever assumes no responsibility for his misfortunes. He portrays himself as a victim of God’s actions, without considering his own role. This absence is especially glaring when comparing his words to various other usages of similar phrases in Tanakh. For example, the words flesh and bones (besari ve-atzmotai), used to describe the ruin of his body, recalls a similar word-pair in Tehillim 38:4:
 
There is no perfection in my flesh (bi-vesari), because of Your anger; there is no wholeness in my bones (ba-atzamay), because of my sin.
 
Unlike the gever of our chapter, the individual of Tehillim 38 explicitly recognizes that his physical afflictions stem from his sin.
 
Tehillim 32:3 portrays a sinner, whose silence in lieu of confession caused him such pain that his “bones wore away” (balu atzamai). The gever describes his own pain using identical language (bila besarishibar atzmotai). By comparing these expressions, we may conclude that the true source of the gever’s pain is not in fact that caused by his tormentor, but rather that which stems from his own resistance to acknowledging his sin. Indeed, Tehillim 32:5-6 strongly recommends confessing and admitting transgressions. Only then can a sinner begin his road to reconciliation with God and recovery from his pain. The gever, however, does not turn to God in supplication; he does not beseech God to deliver him from his troubles. While this is likely due to his perception that God is the direct cause of his predicament, this omission is striking nonetheless.
 
We find another stark contrast to the gever’s attitude in Tehillim 143:3, where the Psalmist describes himself entombed in darkness: “The enemy… made me dwell in darkness like the eternal dead.” In contrast to the gever, the individual in Tehillim 143 directs his pleas to God, who is the obvious address for his troubles. Once again, in comparison with other biblical passages, the gever’s alienation from God alongside his refusal to assume responsibility are evident. Although in the opening verses of this chapter the reader encounters several linguistic allusions that suggest the gever’s accountability, the gever remains baffled by his wretched situation and does not explicitly assume responsibility until verse 39. As we noted in chapter 1, the movement toward recognition of sin is notoriously difficult and takes time, effort, and religious maturity.
 
 
Eikha 3:7-9
 
גָּדַ֧ר בַּעֲדִ֛י וְלֹ֥א אֵצֵ֖א
הִכְבִּ֥יד נְחָשְׁתִּֽי
 
גַּ֣ם כִּ֤י אֶזְעַק֙ וַאֲשַׁוֵּ֔עַ
שָׂתַ֖ם תְּפִלָּתִֽי
 
גָּדַ֤ר דְּרָכַי֙ בְּגָזִ֔ית
 נְתִיבֹתַ֖י עִוָּֽה
 
He has built a wall round me and I cannot exit
He has weighed down my chains
 
Even when I cry and plead
He shuts out my prayer
 
He has built a wall on my roads, of hewn stones[5]
He has twisted my pathways
 
The gever uses images of entrapment and captivity to describe his helplessness. God constructs roadblocks that encircle the gever,[6] impeding and immobilizing him. Perhaps this obstructed road is the one that leads the chained gever into exile,[7] or perhaps it depicts the streets of destroyed Judean cities, clogged by heaps of rubble from collapsed buildings.
 
Possibly, we should regard the blocked roads as figurative language that conveys the gever’s state of mind, his confusion and existential insecurity. The gever plods along on a road that does not take him anywhere. His path is twisted and blocked; he does not know how to arrive at his destination. Moreover, chains weigh down his feet, and his heavy footsteps further impede him.
 
Structurally, this alphabetic unit (the gimel verses) has an interesting feature. Opening with the verb gadar, “to construct a fence,”[8] the first and third sentence that begin with gimel mirror each other. They surround and highlight the middle verse of the alphabetic unit, which features the gever’s first attempt to pray. The endeavor is futile; just as the stones block his path, the gever’s prayer is stonewalled, and God does not heed his cries and pleas.
 
A: Gadar: A fence built around the gever (verse 7)
B: Gam ki ez’ak: The obstruction of the gever’s prayer (verse 8)
A’: Gadar: A fence built on the gever’s path (verse 9)
 
Unsurprisingly, Iyov, the quintessential sufferer, employs similar imagery to describe his plight:
 
Know that God has wronged me; He has surrounded me with his fortress. Indeed, I cry violence and I am not answered; I plead and there is no justice. He built a wall (gadar) around my route and I cannot pass, and he places darkness upon my pathways. (Iyov 19:6-8)
 
Lamenting his unanswered prayers, Iyov describes the wall that surrounds him as he walks on a path that has been plunged into darkness
 
Where is God? Why does God rebuff the gever’s prayer in 3:8? Is this yet another example of God’s pitiless intransigence? Intriguingly, the gever’s description of his entreaties omits an address. The entire verse lacks the second person; the gever may cry and plead, but he does not direct his petition to anyone and he does not mention to whom he prays. Instead, the first person appears three times in this verse: “my cries,” “my pleas,” “my prayer.” Submersed in his self-absorbed suffering, this gever cannot see outside of himself. Just as the gever does not mention God by name, deepening the alienation between himself and God, he cannot find God in prayer because he sees only his own misery. God does not respond to the gever’s supplication, because the gever neglects to direct his pleas toward God, preferring to wallow in the echoes of his own sorrowful wails.
 
Encircled by figurative barriers that he has constructed around himself, the gever’s self-absorbed speech bounces off the walls and boomerangs back to him. Retreating into his misfortune, the gever directs his speech to no one, deepening his impenetrable solitude. Poignant cries echo futilely within the gever’s sealed chamber.
 
 
Eikha 3:10-12
 
דֹּ֣ב אֹרֵ֥ב הוּא֙ לִ֔י
אֲרִ֖י בְּמִסְתָּרִֽים
 
דְּרָכַ֥י סוֹרֵ֛ר וַֽיְפַשְּׁחֵ֖נִי
שָׂמַ֥נִי שֹׁמֵֽם
 
דָּרַ֤ךְ קַשְׁתּוֹ֙ וַיַּצִּיבֵ֔נִי
כַּמַּטָּרָ֖א לַחֵֽץ
 
He is a bear lying in ambush for me
A lion in secret places.
 
He has diverted[9] my roads and mangled me
He has made me desolate
 
He has poised His bow and stood me up
As a target for his arrow
 
New and disturbing animal imagery emerges, imagery of wild and irrational tormentors. The gever’s bestial oppressor lies hidden, waiting to maul him, to tear him apart. As disconcerting as it may seem, Rashi explicitly states that this figurative portrayal refers to God: “God turned into a bear lying in ambush for me.”[10] We have already encountered a bestial portrait of God in chapter 2, when He voraciously swallows Israel and her palaces (2:2, 5). A discomfiting image, the portrayal of God as an animal challenges the notion that God torments the gever for a reason, due to his sins. Animals do not act with logic; they simply attack whatever prey crosses their path.
 
Once again, the gever finds himself on a perilous, twisted road. This time, the dangers materialize; his tormentor attacks him, viciously tearing him into pieces, with animal-like savagery.[11] The gever’s desolation is complete.[12] No one comes to save him; the roads contain only hostile elements,[13] and he is bereft of deliverance.
 
The word that depicts God positioning the gever as a target is darakh (verse 12). A wordplay with the word derekh, meaning road (verses 9 and 11), this word links the gever’s aimless journey along treacherous, twisted trails to the manner in which God steadies His bow and positions him as a target. In both situations, the gever is vulnerable, exposed, and in terrible danger. Nevertheless, the narrative undergoes a distinctive change when the gever’s tormentor sets him up as a target for his arrow.[14] No longer an arbitrary act of abuse, the tormentor singles out the gever in a deliberate and focused decision. Emotionally, this must be a terrible setback for the gever. He realizes that he is not the victim of capricious happenstance or indiscriminate cruelty; rather, God chooses to afflict him. From a theological viewpoint, however, this appears to be a step forward. It is but a small step from the dawn of this realization to the inescapable conclusion that God is meting out punishments for his sins. The gever’s realization represents both an emotional regression and a theological development.
 
 
Eikha 3:13-15
 
הֵבִיא֙ בְּכִלְיוֹתָ֔י
בְּנֵ֖י אַשְׁפָּתֽוֹ
 
הָיִ֤יתִי שְּׂחֹק֙ לְכָל־עַמִּ֔י
נְגִינָתָ֖ם כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם
 
הִשְׂבִּיעַ֥נִי בַמְּרוֹרִ֖ים
הִרְוַ֥נִי לַעֲנָֽה
 
He brought into my innards
The sons of His quiver
 
I was a laughingstock for all of my nation
Their plaything all of the day
 
He satiated me with bitterness
Saturated me with poison
 
Having situated the gever as a target for his arrow, the gever’s tormentor releases the taut string, and arrows penetrate the gever’s innards.[15] The arrows are poetically termed the sons of His quiver, ironically recalling that manner in which biblical passages refer to Israel as God’s sons (e.g. Devarim 14:1).[16]
 
To compound his isolation, the gever endures the mockery of his own people, who ceaselessly taunt him for sport.[17] Atypical within the book, the cruelty of the gever’s own nation sets his suffering apart from theirs. It is not that his fellow countrymen are occupied with their own suffering and have no time or energy to commiserate with him; rather, the gever delineates a deliberate bid to demean and demoralize him. Why is this tormented gever a laughingstock of his nation? Possibly, the scorn of the people derives from the opposite cause; once others see that God singles out the gever for punishment, they regard him as deserving of his tribulations. If his penalty is divinely ordained, then he rightly earns their scorn; his torment is a just consequence of his own heinous crimes.
 
Verse 15 describes a new torment for the gever. He is coerced into imbibing bitterness and poison, which penetrate his innards just as the arrows did in verse 13. This time, toxic fare seems to enter his body by way of mouth, corroding his intestines.[18] Possibly, this alludes to the starvation caused by the siege; in his desperate hunger, the gever must satiate himself with bitter and unpalatable victuals.[19] Possibly, the language is figurative, an apt way of describing the bitterness that he endures and internalizes.[20] The bitter merorim recall the ritual food that we eat to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (Shemot 12:8). Compelled to swallow bitterness without hope for God’s liberation, linguistic allusions to the Exodus represent an ironic allusion to the national narrative of God’s salvation.[21]
 
 
 

[1] This interpretation reads verse 4 as a direct continuation of verse 3 (in spite of the alphabetic division); see Ibn Ezra, Eikha 3:4. As I previously observed, the alphabetic division does not seem to divide the chapter into separate units.
[2] Tehillim 88 describes death similarly, using images of darkness, impotence, and imprisonment. In contrast to Eikha 3, the individual of Tehillim 88 beseeches God to save him from this near-death experience. For similar imagery used to describe death, see also Tehillim 49:20; Kohelet 6:3-4; Iyov 10:19-22.
[3] See the Targum on Eikha 3:5: “He built a siege against me and surrounded the city and he uprooted the leaders and drained them.”
[4] See the Targum on Eikha 3:6: “He placed me in a dark prison, like the dead that go to another world.”
[5] The hewn stones (gazit) that obstruct the gever’s path may allude to the hewn stones used to construct the Temple (e.g. I Kings 5:31; 6:36).
[6] Dobbs Allsopp, Lamentations, p. 112, notes the irony of using imagery of construction within a book that commemorates destruction.
[7] Rashi (Eikha 3:7) explains that the wall that surrounds the chained gever, from which he cannot escape, is made up of troops ready to ambush. Rashi’s precise intention is unclear. He may be describing the siege around the city, or perhaps he is describing the troops that accompany the captives into exile, guarding them so that they do not flee.
[8] Rashi on Eikha 3:7 explains the word gadar as follows: “He made a wall opposite me to imprison me.”
[9] Some commentators on this verse (e.g. Rashi, R. Yosef Kara) explain that the word sorer derives from the word sir, meaning thorns. Like in Hosea 2:8, God paves the gever’s path with thorns that render his journey painful and arduous. This reading also alludes to the desolation along the roads that have become overgrown and thorny from lack of maintenance and travelers (see Isaiah 34:13).
[10] Hosea 13:7-8 portrays God in a similar manner. Nonetheless, Eikha Rabba 3:4 maintains that the savage animals here refer to Israel’s brutish enemies – namely, Nebuhadnezzar the Babylonian general (who destroyed the First Temple), and Vespasian, the Roman general (who destroyed the Second Temple).
[11] The Targum translates the hapax legomenon, pashach, with the word shasah, which can describe the way in which an animal is ripped apart (e.g. Vayikra 1:17; Shofetim 14:6)
[12] In using the word shomem, which previously described the desolation of Jerusalem, her gates, and her children (Eikha 1:4; 13, 16), the gever again creates a parallel between his experience and that of the city.
[13] While the verse does not specifically mention the absence of fellow travelers (as opposed to the explicit description in Eikha 1:4), the gever’s desolation and his vulnerability suggest his isolation. The gever seems entirely unaware of any human being other than himself. His misfortunes loom large; he is completely absorbed in his own experience.
[14] Biblical interpreters disagree as to whether the gever becomes a target for his tormentor (namely, God) to fire at him (Rashi), or if his tormentor places him in a vulnerable position, so that anyone who wishes to fire at him may do so easily (R. Yosef Kara). Similar language in Eikha 2:4 suggests that God fires the arrows at him here as well. For further support for Rashi’s reading, see Iyov 16:12.
[15] Once again, an idea continues across the boundaries of the alphabetic unit. The tormentor aims the arrows at the end of the daled unit (verses 10-12), but only releases them at the beginning of the heh unit (13-15). See R. Yosef Kara’s comment on Eikha 3:13.
[16] An idyllic psalm, Tehillim 127 offers a reversal of this image by describing a contented gever, who “fills his quiver” with his sons instead of arrows (Tehillim 127:5).
[17] To resolve this problem, some biblical commentators read amim or am instead of ami (e.g. Rasag; Ibn Ezra; R. Yosef Kara). In this reading, it is the other nations who jeer at the gever, not his own comrades.
[18] For a similar description, see Jeremiah 9:14.
[19] For a similar idea, see the Targum’s translation of Eikha 4:9.
[20] See e.g. Jeremiah 9:18; Mishlei 5:4.
[21] Books about the Holocaust often relate of the heroic attempt to observe the holidays in the death camps. One survivor’s account reflects conflicted feelings about celebrating a holiday of liberation while experiencing ongoing bitterness and slavery: “There was one sentence in the Haggadah that especially angered us: ‘In every generation our enemies rise to destroy us, but the Almighty always saves us from their hands.’ He certainly was not saving any of us, including the millions of children who were murdered… It was on March 27, 1945, when [the Rebbe] brought the matzahs and declared that the Passover Seder would now begin. ‘Out of the seven ingredients needed to conduct the Seder, we now only have two, matzohs and marror, but the Almighty will understand.’ ‘Rebbe, where is the marror (bitter herb) that you mentioned?’ we asked him. He looked at us. ‘Our lives in this camp is the marror; it is bitter enough’” [Testimony of Solly Ganor, Passover in Dachau].