What’s a Megillah?

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A megillah (meh-gee-LAH or meh-GILL-ah) is a scroll. Usually, the term refers to one of five specific scrolls (megillot) read on specific days of the Jewish calendar:

Song of Songs (Shir ha Shirim)- read on the Shabbat during Passover.

Ruth – read on Shavuot

Lamentations (Eicha) – read on Tisha B’Av

Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) – read on the Shabbat during Sukkot

Esther – read on Purim

The megillot are not merely read, they are chanted to a particular tune or trope for the day of observance. This is not the same tune used for Shabbat Torah readings – it’s quite distinctive. I’ve linked each of the titles above to recordings, so that you can get a little taste of the trope.

Listening to a recording is a poor substitute for the experience of hearing a megillah chanted in person. Each reading takes place in the context of a community, and in the case of Lamentations and Esther the congregation also has a role to play. You’ll get a sense of that, too, from the recordings above.

Have you ever heard a megillah chanted live? What was that experience like for you?

The Scroll of Pain and Sorrow

eicha

Two days in the Jewish year stop for the reading of a scroll that is not the Torah. On Purim, we listen to the Scroll of Esther. On Tisha B’Av, we listen to the Scroll of Eicha, also known as the Book of Lamentations.*

Eicha does not mean “lamentation.” As with all the names of the books in the Hebrew Bible, it is the first significant word of the text, in this case, the very first word. It is both a word and a howl of pain: “HOW?”

Eicha was written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonian army. It is written in a literary form that we don’t hear much in the 21st century: it is a lament, a passionate expression of grief. It is both highly structured (an acrostic) and full-throated in its expression of heartbreak.

We don’t hear much lament in the 21st century. We tend to cut it off very quickly. When I am listening to someone who is in the midst of grief, they will often apologize to me for “taking my time” or for “going on and on.” And yet it is appropriate for the person in acute grief to talk it out in the days immediately following a loss. That’s why we observe seven days of shivaand why a single evening of “shiva minyan” is not really shiva. The immediate agony of individual loss is relieved by the opportunity to give it full expression; it then softens to an ache that is, alas, part of the human condition.

Eicha is the testimony of one who witnessed the destruction of a holy city and many of its inhabitants. It is tough reading, because it is blunt about the horrors of the siege. It is a cry from a heart filled with agony and horror.

As with other formal laments, such as Psalms 44, 60, and 90, Eicha moves from agony, to a plea for help, to praise. It is, ultimately, a statement of faith that the Holy One of Israel does not leave us wounded forever. It affirms the possibility of change, in fact, it has the chutzpah to affirm that while there is real hurt, the future holds real healing and a restoration to wholeness. The judgment of God is painful, but in that judgment are the seeds of new life.

Traditionally, we sit on the floor in a darkened room to listen to the chanting of Megillat Eicha. The trope (musical setting) is as bitter as the words. The listeners have been fasting for hours by the time they hear it (from sundown the night before.) They listen over growling stomachs and aching heads. If they are in a hot climate, they may be feeling thirst as well. Eicha is a miserable business, but it is an act of solidarity with our ancestors, and in this day and age, perhaps an act of solidarity with dispossessed people everywhere.

Whether or not you choose to fast this Tisha B’Av, I strongly recommend you seek out a synagogue where Eicha will be chanted. It is an unforgettable experience.

*Yes, there are three other megillot (scrolls.) However, the other megillot are not nearly so central to the observance of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot. Megillat Esther is the central event of Purim, and Megillat Eicha is the central event of Tisha B’Av.

Much of the material on lament I learned from a wonderful article, “The Costly Loss of Lament” by Walter Bruggemann. I recommend it highly.

Prayer of the Broken Heart

English: Women with Broken Heart

How is one to pray with a broken heart?

Many of the best known Jewish prayers are prayers of praise. Sometimes the words of these prayers are hard to say when we are hurting, or when there is something we desperately  need. Blessing God – the simplest form of Jewish prayer – is counter-intuitive when we are in pain.

There is a kind of prayer that is not so well known, but it can be helpful when we are in the depths.  That sort of prayer is lamentation. When we make a lament, we list our pains and our disappointments. We own those parts of our unhappy state that are our own fault, but we also list those things that are simply lousy luck or the malice of people over whom we have no control. We make a list, and we hold it up before God. We say, “See? I hurt!”

A prayer of lament is not magic. It will not bring back the dead or mend what is broken, any more than the lament of the speaker in the Book of Lamentations brought back the dead or freed the slaves of Jerusalem after its destruction. So one might ask, what’s the point?

The point of such prayer is not that it is guaranteed to change the situation – many things cannot be changed. However, the prayer can change us.

In making the whole, long, miserable list, we are going to notice things we did not notice before, because we were so lost in pain:

  • Since we are not making this list for anyone but ourselves and God, there is no need to minimize or exaggerate our troubles. We can simply state them as facts, and move towards accepting them as facts.
  • We may notice that some things really were beyond our control: the recession, the fire, the illness. We can say, as Job did to his comforters, “I did not choose this. It is not my fault.” We can reject foolish theories about “attracting” misfortune or illness.
  • We may notice that some things were indeed our own doing. That is not a pleasant discovery, but at this point, it is simply another fact. Perhaps we need to work on teshuvah [repentance] or work on forgiving ourselves. By making teshuvah properly and forgiving ourselves we will be able to move on.
  • We can participate in the Jewish tradition of holding God responsible for those things that were not human actions. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it says that the ancient Hebrews cried out to God, who listened to their cries. In the wilderness, they complained (a lot!) David complained in several of the Psalms. And in modern times, prisoners in Auschwitz actually put God on trial for failing to keep the Covenant.
  • Sometimes making this list will allow us to let go and cry. Sometimes there really is such a thing as “a good cry.”
  • With the calm that comes from really accepting that things are “that bad” new possibilities may emerge. Perhaps pride or shame was getting in the way of accepting help.
  • Telling the truth about our lives is an act of intimacy and dignity. Whatever your understanding of God – whether you address God very traditionally as Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the World] or you address the “still small voice” within your own heart, it is movement towards something new.

Have you ever made a prayer of lament? What was your experience with it?