Shiur #41: Eikha: Chapter 3 (continued)

  • Dr. Yael Ziegler
Eikha 3:40-66
Having paused to introspect and consider God’s ways, human accountability, and how humans should respond to suffering, the third section of this chapter returns to the account of misfortune. Initially, the gever speaks in first person plural, unexpectedly appearing in the role of leader amongst a community of sufferers.[1] In verse 48, the gever returns to the first person singular for the duration of the chapter. Themes resurface from the first section of the chapter; prayer remains blocked and the sufferer is still entrapped, overwhelmed by the misfortunes and tribulations that prevail. Yet, the progression of the gever is remarkable. Utterly altered by his ruminations, the gever reconstructs his relationship with God and community, acquiring at the same time a new perception of himself.
Structure of the Final Section (Verses 40-66)
I am inclined to divide the final section of this chapter into three subsections, based on both speaker and substance. The first person plural speaker demarcates the first subsection (verses 40-47), casting the gever in the role of a member of a community. Verses 48-66 return to the familiar first person account of the individual speaker. I have subdivided these first person verses on thematic grounds. When the first person speaker initially re-emerges, he does not focus upon his own personal tragedy, concentrating instead on the suffering of the nation (verses 48-51). In verse 52, the individual resumes his own personal account. However, as we will see, he is a changed man, even if the miserable circumstances that swirl around him have not substantially changed. Comparing the individual’s final account of his suffering to the initial account at the beginning of the chapter illuminates the dramatic transformation that this individual undergoes during the course of this chapter.
A: Verses 40-47: The Communal Speaker: Repentance, Prayer, and Complaint
B: Verses 48-51: The Individual Speaker: Advocating for the Community
C: Verses 52-66: The Individual Speaker: A Return to the Account of Suffering
Eikha 3:40-47
נַחְפְּשָׂ֤ה דְרָכֵ֙ינוּ֙ וְֽנַחְקֹ֔רָה
וְנָשׁ֖וּבָה עַד־יְקֹוָֽק
נִשָּׂ֤א לְבָבֵ֙נוּ֙ אֶל־כַּפָּ֔יִם
אֶל־אֵ֖ל בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם
נַ֤חְנוּ פָשַׁ֙עְנוּ֙ וּמָרִ֔ינוּ
אַתָּ֖ה לֹ֥א סָלָֽחְתָּ
סַכֹּ֤תָה בָאַף֙ וַֽתִּרְדְּפֵ֔נוּ
הָרַ֖גְתָּ לֹ֥א חָמָֽלְתָּ
סַכּ֤וֹתָה בֶֽעָנָן֙ לָ֔ךְ
מֵעֲב֖וֹר תְּפִלָּֽה
סְחִ֧י וּמָא֛וֹס תְּשִׂימֵ֖נוּ
בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָעַמִּֽים
פָּצ֥וּ עָלֵ֛ינוּ פִּיהֶ֖ם
פַּ֧חַד וָפַ֛חַת הָ֥יָה לָ֖נוּ
הַשֵּׁ֥את וְהַשָּֽׁבֶר
Let us search out our ways and examine them
And we will return to God
Let us lift up our hearts in our hands
To God in the heavens
We have sinned and rebelled
You did not forgive
You covered Yourself in anger and You pursued us
You killed and You did not pity
You covered Yourself with a cloud
From allowing prayer to pass through
You placed us in filth and refuse
In the midst of the nations
They opened their mouths at us
All of our enemies
Fear and pitfall are our lot
Horror and brokenness
The word chata’av (verse 39) remains suspended in mid-air, as we eagerly wait to see how the gever will proceed following his vivid realization. What is the nature of the gever’s constructive response to his situation? Confession produces introspection and repentance,[2] followed promptly by prayer and more confession.
The key to understanding the gever’s constructive response is his striking (and unprecedented) shift from a first person singular voice to a first person plural. The gever now speaks as part of a community. He has abandoned the posture of the forlorn individual, whose isolation from his community is an additional item in the litany of his personal woes. One cannot forget his plaintive description from verse 14: “I was a laughingstock of my nation, their plaything all of the day.” The gever never explains the cause of this alienation; it remains simply one of his many trials, another reason for self-pity and despair.
The gever’s sense of isolation from his nation links up with his sense of alienation from God (indicated primarily by the fact that he does not mention God by name for seventeen verses.) His estrangement from God may necessarily produce his forfeiture of the covenantal community, whose definition and essence derives from shared worship and common religious practices and values. Moreover, the gever’s crushing misery produces a narcissistic obsession with his woes, the inability to see beyond his own grisly experiences. Therefore, he sees neither God nor his fellow humans; utter alienation overwhelms him.
How, then, has the gever recovered a relationship both with God and with his estranged community? First, as the chapter progresses, the gever’s intense inward focus begins to wane. As the gever regains his equilibrium, his gaze moves from a self-absorbed fixation on his own suffering to a newfound awareness of his surroundings. Others come into focus, and he observes that they too suffer. The dissipation of his self-centered misery also allows him to see God, who was absent from his initial description of his woes.
Comparison of verses 8 and 44 – two substantively similar verses, in which the speaker bemoans the failure of his prayer to reach God – throws the gever’s transformation into sharp relief. In verse 8, the gever’s prayer was so self-centered that he did not even acknowledge the recipient of his pleas. Verse 8 lacks an address, a “thou,” instead focusing exclusively on the individual who bemoans the futility of his prayers: “Even when I cry out and when I plead, my prayer is shut out.” In content, verse 44 is not substantially different from verse 8; the communal voice again laments his perception that prayer fails to reach its destination. However, there is no remnant left of the self-absorbed victim of the first section. Instead, verse 44 obscures the “I” who prays, referencing the divine addressee twice in the second person: “You covered Yourself with a cloud from allowing prayer to pass through.” The contrast between these verses illustrates well the shift that has taken place. No longer consumed by his own misery, the gever reacquires the ability to see outside of his own self-absorbed reality.
A second reason that the gever reacquires his community relates to his recent reconciliation with God. Just as the loss of God entailed the loss of membership in the covenantal nation, reconciliation with God facilitates the gever’s recovery of his affiliation with the covenantal community. It is not shared culture, history, land, or language that primarily binds the covenantal community of Israel, but, first and foremost, their shared relationship with God.  When an individual member of the nation of Israel breaks off his relationship with God by sinning, this negatively affects his relationship with the community. The converse is true as well; by reconvening his relationship with God, the gever finds himself once again a part of the covenantal community of Israel.
Why, though, does the gever choose to speak in the plural form? Why veer sharply away from the intensely personal narrative to link up to the national tragedy? It is now that the gever transforms his tragedy into a constructive affair, making his own suffering meaningful and useful. Inspired to share his revelations with others, the gever commissions his community to join him in introspection and repentance, endeavoring to elicit their devotion, faithfulness, and passion. In a gesture of humble petition, the gever recruits others to lift their hearts and hands upwards along with him in a quest to find God. Thus, the gever joins his community, not simply to associate with them, but to motivate, guide, and lead them in his newfound transformative journey.
Contrition is fleeting. In a surprising turnaround, the gever sharply alters his conciliatory tone. “We have sinned and rebelled, [but] You did not forgive!” Anger and complaint supplant the remorseful call to repentance and prayer.[3] The second person accusation (“You did not forgive!”) replaces the first person plural of confession (“We have sinned and rebelled”), establishing an adversarial relationship between the community and God.[4] Each side has betrayed the other; both parties assume a measure of culpability. Casting off sorrowful confession, the community indulges instead in delineating its grievances, which snowball and grow in intensity. Flinging accusations at God in a series of rapid-fire second person verbs, the community’s anger at God is both personal and direct: “You did not forgive, You covered Yourself in anger, You pursued us, You killed, You did not pity, You covered Yourself with a cloud… You placed us in filth and refuse in the midst of the nations!”
In a jarring reversal, the gever who has finally discovered sin and launched repentance, now has the audacity to renew his complaints and reproach God, treated Him as an adversary. How has this occurred?[5]
Possibly, regaining his community actually empowers the gever; speaking in the plural form enables humans to direct accusations against God that an individual could never dare utter. Once the gever joins the covenantal community, he can expect different assurances and commitments from God. God seems more inclined to forgive His collective nation than individual sinners. The covenant that God made with the forefathers obligates Him to maintain fidelity to the national entity,[6] though not necessarily to individuals. In a similar vein, a gemara accords special powers to collective prayer, noting that God pays special attention to the pleas of the community:
What is the meaning of the verse: “And my prayer will be to You God at an acceptable time”? When is an acceptable time? At the time that the congregation is praying… R. Natan says: From where do we know that God does not reject the prayers of the many? As it says (Iyov 36:5), “Behold, God does not reject the mighty.”[7] (Berakhot 8a)
Moreover, the community has different privileges than the individual when addressing God. The very act of addressing God directly in a series of second person verbs illustrates the bold manner in which the community approaches God. Instead of a single mortal approaching God with a plea or petition, when the covenantal community reaches out to God, it has the right to speak directly to God and to harbor the expectation that God will heed, forgive, and acquiesce to his petition.
In addition, the communal voice tempers the aggrieved words spoken by the sufferers.  Protests, objections, and grievances become supplication and prayer in the communal mouth. Defined by its shared commitment to serving God, the nation’s anger at God is muted by the certain knowledge that the community has not rejected the authority of God, but rather simply claims that which God has promised the community.
Substantively, the miserable reality described by the collective entity is familiar from other depictions in the book. Enemies prevail, opening their mouths in gloating mockery, just as they did in Eikha 2:16. Steeped in fear and pitfall, the community’s final words express their horror and brokenness (see Eikha 2:13). The highly alliterative word-pairs “pachad va-phachat” and ha-shet ve-ha-shever[8] suggest that these words work in tandem, cooperating to entrap the victim, who cannot escape his terrible fate.[9] Exiting the pachad, he falls in the pachat; even if he can manage to extract himself from the horror (shet), he is certain to be overwhelmed by brokenness (shever).
Yet, the gever undergoes a significant personal transformation, as indicated by the shift to a communal voice. Speaking as part of a congregation, as a communal “we,” the gever rises above his lonely, self-absorbed victimhood. He has become an advocate and leader of his nation, employing his personal tragedy to rally others to return to God. Addressing the community’s grievances directly to God, the gever expresses his confidence in the community’s ability to approach God straightforwardly and confrontationally, with the hope and belief that God will respond to the community’s needs.

[1] The plural voice appears in Eikha only here, 4:17-20, and throughout chapter 5.
[2] R. Yosef Kara notes the connection between verses 39 and 40, maintaining that after the gever recognizes the connection between sins and suffering (verse 39), he searches his ways for the specific sins that he has committed (verse 40). See Rambam, Hilkhot Aveilut 13:12, where the Rambam advocates a constructive response to tragedy (one should examine his deeds), without necessarily maintaining the existence of a causal relationship.
[3] The Targum mitigates the fierce indictment of this verse by adding a phrase to his translation: “We have sinned and rebelled, and because we did not return to You, You did not forgive.”
[4] Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, p. 123, points out that aside from the “I” in verses 1 and 63, this is the only place in the chapter that independent pronouns are used.
[5] Berlin, Lamentations, p. 96, opines that the gever concludes, disturbingly, that there is no actual relationship between repentance and divine forgiveness. But why should he expect there to be? Has God promised an immediate connection between repentance and divine forgiveness? Even if God allows for a causal connection between penitence and forgiveness, He does not promise it as an immediate, automatic response. The expression of disappointment in the absence of divine forgiveness seems to be beyond reasonable expectations. For this reason, I have claimed above that it is rooted in the sense of entitlement requisitioned by the communal entity.
[6] E.g. Shemot 32:13; Vayikra 26:42; II Kings 13:23.
[7] This seems to be the intended translation of the verse according to the gemara (see e.g. Rashi in his commentary on Berakhot 8a). However, this is not the simple meaning of the verse in Iyov 36:5.
[8] I call these word-pairs “highly alliterative” because each pair share two common consonants at the beginning of the word, deepening the feeling of reiteration. Pachad and pachat are distinguished only by a daled and a tav, which are also quite similar sounds.
[9] Note the use of these words in Isaiah 24:17-18: “Fear, pitfall, and a snare upon you, inhabitants of the land. And those who run from the sounds of fear will plunge into the pitfall and he who goes up from the pitfall will be caught in the snare…” Based on the similar linguistic usage, Rashi interprets the words “fear and pitfall” in Eikha 3:47 as an indication of a hopeless attempt to escape their misfortunes: “When we fled the fear, we plunged into the pitfall.” See also Jeremiah 48:43-44.