11My eyes are spent with tears
My heart is in tumult,
My being melts away
Over the ruin of my poor people,
As babes and sucklings languish
In the squares of the city.
12They keep asking their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?
As they languish like battle-wounded
In the squares of the town,
As their life runs out
In their mothers’ bosoms.
The book of Lamentations (or, in Hebrew, Megillat Eicha) is one of the Hebrew canon’s five megillot, or scrolls, which are read at different points in the Jewish liturgical cycle. In the Tanakh, it is situated between Ruth and Ecclesiastes; in Christian Bibles it is found between Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Traditionally read in synagogue on Tisha B’Av, (the fast commemorating the destruction of the Temple), Lamentations begins with a question—Eicha: How?! It describes the wreckage of a besieged Jerusalem in the wake of the destruction of the first temple, and its imagery would not be out of place in a horror movie: the old and the young alike, filthy and starving in the streets, children asking for sustenance that is not there, mothers eating their babies. This desolation and suffering is contrasted with Jerusalem’s former glory: “They that fed on dainties are desolate in the streets; they that were brought up in scarlet embrace dunghills.” (4:5)
We wonder what could possibly have caused this suffering and horror, but the scroll’s initial eicha is a rhetorical one: almost immediately, we learn that “Jerusalem has grievously sinned.” (1:8) The calamity is a consequence of human immorality, and the nations who have sacked the city and destroyed the temple are instruments of God’s justice and wrath. When there still might have been time to correct course, Jerusalem’s seers “did not expose your iniquity, so as to restore your fortunes, but prophesied to you oracles of deception and delusion.” (2:14) The only response, the text exhorts, is repentance; but this can only happen with divine help: “turn us unto you, O Adonai, and we shall be turned.” (5:21)
The verses quoted above describe in heartrending detail the suffering of the people in the besieged city. The town centers, once atria of commerce and activity, have become charnel houses: people come together there not to socialize, but to die. The verses give particular attention to the suffering of children. Even the weak and innocent among the people are not spared the consequence of Israel’s sin: “As babes and sucklings languish in the squares of the city, They keep asking their mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’” Calamity has upended natural orders. Parents, who are supposed to provide for their children and keep them safe, cannot. Children, who should not know want or violence, “languish like battle-wounded.” Even the epitome of refuge and nourishment has run dry: the lives of children “run out in their mothers’ bosoms.”
Even the narrator (identified in multiple traditions, though not by modern scholarship, as the prophet Jeremiah) is not immune: “My eyes are spent with tears, my heart is in tumult, my being melts away”—the Hebrew for which phrase literally reads “my liver spills on the ground”—“at the ruin of my poor people.” Is his suffering sympathetic? Does he watch from afar, echoing his people’s torment in his own psyche? Or is it literal? Is his physical being actually melting away, the churning of his innards his body’s response to starvation and the pestilence that comes with widespread death? Even in the midst of his own slow demise, is he able to feel sorrow for his fellow humans, to think past his own survival instinct and toward moral behavior?
This Tisha b’Av, the extreme heat many of us are experiencing in North America forces us to confront the reality of climate change and the consequences of environmental degradation. Generally speaking, Lamentations is not the first book that comes to mind when one is asked what the Tanakh has to say about the environment. Yet, I believe that this text has some significant things to say about environmental ethics—specifically about the consequences of environmental destruction for humans. (We might thank the recent film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for bringing this aspect of the issue into the public consciousness).
These particular verses point us, I would suggest, in three specific directions. First, the wrenching description of how the people of Jerusalem suffer for lack of basic resources pushes us, to appropriate Jonathan Schofer’s words, to “[confront] vulnerability as a basis for ethics.” (Schofer, 2010, 187) As physical beings, we cannot live, or flourish, or serve God if the basic needs of our bodily survival are not met– and the resources that enable us to meet these needs come from the world that God has created.
Second, in emphasizing the particular suffering of children, the text reminds us that our actions have consequences for the innocent. Even if we decided that particular people who behave immorally deserve everything they get as a result, this text forces us to see that they are not the only people punished for their behavior.
Third, the perspective of the narrator, whichever way we decide to interpret it, reminds us that there is still room for empathy and moral choice within a crisis, even one as grave as we see here. If the narrator is watching from afar and suffers in the abstract, we learn that we can feel for and try to ameliorate the suffering of others, no matter how grievously they have sinned. And if the narrator is speaking from the midst of the horror, we learn that, even in the most dehumanizing situations, there is nevertheless room for humanity.
Cross-posted to my personal blog. A version of this essay was presented on March 16, 2012, at the Mid-Atlantic AAR regional meeting in New Brunswick, NJ.
This image, by Gustav Dore, is in the public domain and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.