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 shiva, and 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.