27 May 2017/1 Sivan 5777
‘My eye runs down with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people. My eye trickles down, and ceases not, without any intermission, until the Eternal One looks down and behold from heaven. My eye affects my heart because of all the people of my city. They hunt me like a bird, those who hate me without cause.’ (Eicha 3:48-52).
These verses are from the book of Lamentations. Having studied this heart-wrenching work with Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris, who helped me understand its complexities, it is clear that its English name, Lamentations, does not convey the same depth that the Hebrew name has – Eicha. It is more of a sound than a word, more of a deep, belly cry, an exclamation of deep distress and grief.
This week as we start to try and process the utter horror of the bombing in Manchester, we cry out Eicha – how?!
I am leaning on this ancient text to help explore the feelings of grief, fear, distress, and despair felt in the aftermath of the events of Monday night.
Eicha was written after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE while the Israelites were still in exile. The book is expressing a deep pain and reflects a sense of hopelessness. Scholars understand it to be a dirge which can be defined as ‘an outpouring of grief for a loss that has already occurred with no expectation of reversing that loss’ (Berlin).
Throughout the book the voices within it express their anger at their situation and at God – ‘See Adonai and consider…The youth and the old man lie on the ground in the streets…’ (2:20). The long poem seeks to make God understand their grief – ‘The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning.’ (5:15).
Eicha teaches us the importance of lamenting, of crying and of expressing our anger and pain. We ignore these feelings at our peril. It is dangerous to deny the fear that these type of attacks engender and the pain we experience.
Yet, Eicha also teaches us that there must be a limit to this type of crying out. We must try not to be overwhelmed, to read the news for hours, to become lost in our facebook feeds and to get lost in the suffering and forget that we are enjoined to ‘choose life’ (Deuteronomy 30:19). The entire book of Eicha is written as an acrostic, with each verse beginning with a letter from the alphabet. Indeed, chapter 3 is a triple acrostic. Not only is this superb literature it expresses a deep truth about how we mourn. On the one hand, it expresses the totality of the destruction felt by the Israelites, and on the other hand, it gives form to the inexpressible – it acts as a containment for our grief. Indeed, the Jewish laws for mourning are explicit in defining our mourning period – as the 16thc law book, the Shulchan Aruch, states:
‘One must not grieve excessively for the dead. Whoever weeps more than the law requires must be weeping for something else. Rather, let one accept the schedule set down by the sages: three days for weeping, seven days for lamenting, thirty for mourning.’ Yoreh Deah 394
Jewish teaching and tradition always draws us back to the continuing world around us – to creation, to the divine in our lives. We are drawn out of the darkness and reminded of the goodness and the importance of living. The people of Manchester have shown such a spirit from the moment that the bombing took place. They replaced the pieces of shrapnel, the nuts and bolts from the vicious bomb, with acts of kindness – with sparks, not of shrapnel and hate but of divine goodness – divine sparks.
The headlines of these acts of loving kindness, which we call gemilut hasadim, are endless – ‘Muslim taxi driver made three trips to rescue teens’, #roomformanchester – ‘Anyone needing a lift from Manchester, let me know and I can come to pick you up and make sure you’re safe’, ‘Chris Parker, a 33-year-old homeless man who came to the aid of the wounded after the Manchester bombing’ and so on.
For me, one of the most remarkable reactions this week was the song that was spontaneously sung at the vigil the following day – ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ by the Manchester band Oasis. As the well-known quotation by Martin Luther King states, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.’ We must be able to love, to live, and, importantly given the Mancunian spirit, continue to dance.
This leads me to one of the more intriguing and powerful parts of the book of Eicha. The penultimate verse states, ‘Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, ve’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu ke-kedem’ – ‘Adonai, allow us to return to you – repair our days as before – so that we will come back’ (5:21). We use this verse in our liturgy for the return of our Torah scroll to the ark. This verse is typical of the spirit of the book which constantly challenges God and ourselves to live up to God’s role in our world – ‘Adonai, allow us to return to you’. We hear that the rebuilding of our world is a partnership between ourselves and God – whatever we understand God to be. We seek healing and repair, tikkun, for our broken world.
We end with the last verse of Eicha, which follows directly from Hashiveinu. This verse holds a significantly different message to this verse of hope, promise, and challenge heard immediately before. The verses together read: ‘Adonai, allow us to return to you – repair our days as before – so that we will come back. Unless you have completely rejected us – raging against us forever.’ The book ends with the most despairing of lines – seeing their suffering as a punishment from God, holding out no hope for the future. Rashi, the medieval French commentator, was as concerned as we might be about this ending. He wrote that we must, when reciting the book, repeat the Hashiveinu verse.
We must end with a message of hope, we cannot be left in this pit of despair – we must realise that goodness can overcome darkness and see the beauty in creation and not only the destruction. We sing Hashivienu as a song of protest, an anthem of hope in the face of terror.
Like our ancient commentators, and like the strong and proud Mancunians we do not look back, like Lot’s wife, and get stuck in the horror, and metaphorically allow our tears to turn us into pillars of salt, but instead we seek a return to God and to divinity, to a better world. We don’t look back in anger but face the horror with love, kindness and compassion.
Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, ve’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu ke-kedem’ – ‘Adonai, allow us to return to you – repair our days as before – so that we will come back.’