Afterword to Laments:

Some notes on the theology of Eikhah:

1. The idea that tragedy and disaster are punishment for our sins is alien to most most modern Jews. The author(s) of Eikhah believed (more or less) that what happened to Zion and Jerusalem was an expression of divine judgment.

One obvious reason why this theology was consoling is that it allowed people to believe that there was meaning in tragedy. (This is one reason why it can be hard to connect the Holocaust with what we mourn for on Tish'a B'Av.)

The reader might also consider another possibility: For the ancients, the choices were to believe that the destruction was God's punishment, or that God simply had no more interest in what happened to them. It is easy to imagine why people would choose a punishing God over an uncaring God – though the latter possibility is suggested in the very last line of the text, "For if you should loathe us" (5:22). (It was also true that the physical downfall of Jerusalem was preceded by a moral downfall, by economic and social oppression.)

Even though Eikhah sounds like it's about God punishing us, it is really about the hope against hope that God still cares about what we do and what happens to us. It's not really a theology of evil, but rather a prayer that awful occurrences prove that God still cares, instead of proving God’s indifference.

2. That doesn't mean we ought to just accept this theology – even in Eikhah itself, this idea is questioned. Only in chapter 3 is the destruction of Zion consistently seen as fair and just punishment. In all the other chapters, the degree of divine punishment is (subtly) described as excessive and abusive. For example, we read, "See YHVH and look: Whom did you treat so? If women will eat their fruit, coddled babies —!" (2:20). The poet says that the people in the nations saw and understood the tragedy that unfolded, but that God did not.

3. This may also be the right way to read the metaphors of sexual abuse in Eikhah like this one: "All who honor her despise her, for they saw her nakedness." (1:8) In the prophets, this metaphor is used to describe the just punishment that is a consequence of Israel's "adulterous" chasing after other gods. But in Eikhah, the metaphor is used to hold up a mirror to God to show that the punishment was abusive.

4. The real theology of Eikhah is expressed in the verse, "What can I compare to you, daughter Jerusalem, that I may comfort you?" (2:13) What images, what words, can help people bear the memory of tragedy? The poet is willing to say whatever needs to be said in order to find meaning in the face of tragedy.

5. There is however another way to look at the motif of divine punishment. According to Jeremiah, the reason for exile was that Israel had not allowed the land to rest every seven years during her Sabbatical or Shmita year. 490 years without Shmita equals 70 years of exile. However, this idea is found nowhere in Eikhah, where the identification of the people with the land is total.

What does this mean? The Torah portrays the land as a subject, with interests, rewards, and rights that take priority over our needs. Especially in the laws of the Jubilee and Shmita years (Lev 25)—and in the consequences that are supposed to befall the people if they do not observe these laws (Lev 26)—it is clear that God is ready to take the side of the land of Israel against the Jewish people.

Humanity as a social order, as a species, and all the more so as a collection of individuals, has no moral standing when its interests conflict with the intrinsic interests of the land, who will "enjoy her Sabbaths" (Lev 26:34,43), even if that means the people are exiled or wiped out. From the divine perspective, the human social order has value or validity only when justice encompasses the land as both a moral subject and a covenantal partner. What has intrinsic value is not humanity but justice, which is humanity’s potential.

7. The Torah outlines six curses for not observing the Sabbatical year, which describe how the relationship between the the people and the land can unravel, marked by who eats what or whom.

The thread of this progression is woven in and out of Leviticus 26, but here is what it looks like when we pull it out: (1) "you will sow your seed for emptiness, for your enemies will eat it" (v.16); (2) "you will use your strength for emptiness, and your land will not give her produce" (v.20); (3) "I will send out against you the animal of the field and she will make you childless" (v.22); (4) "you will be gathered (i.e., like a harvest) into your cities...and I will break the staff of bread against you" (v.26); (5) "you will eat the flesh of your sons and your daughters’ flesh you will eat" (v.29); (6) "you will be lost in the nations and the land of your enemies will eat you" (v.38).

Two of these curses involve children being eaten – first by wild animals and then by their parents. This image is repeated in Eikhah, and it is the strongest connection between the text of Eikhah and the Sabbatical year.

Because the Jewish people was in exile for so long, the last curse ("the land of your enemies will eat you") does not sound like the worst. Because we love our children, it is the fifth that sounds the worst. But symbolically, if the land eats us, this represents the final step: a complete reversal of the right relationship between people and land.

In an age when we have good reason to believe that our ecological "sins" are coming home to roost, the connection between disaster and divine retribution may not seem so farfetched. If we sympathize with this idea, we can read Eikhah as an invitation to change our lives, towards justice for all people, for all species, and for the land herself.

Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2015 / 5775, the year of Shmita