Vision. Lamentation. HOW?

Consider and call for the lamenting-women, that they may come; and send for the wise-women, that they may come. (Jeremiah 9:16)
We are approaching Shabbat Hazon, the annual Jewish “Sabbath of Vision.” At first glance, the “vision” of this Sabbath seems to be one of impending doom. The Scriptural readings prepare us for Tisha b'Av, our Jewish day of mourning for tragedies through the ages. On Tisha b'Av itself, we'll read the book that is called Lamentations in English and Eikha in Hebrew.

The readings for Shabbat Hazon also highlight the word Eikha—which literally means “How." In painful, troubled times like these—when so many are lamenting what seems like the absence of vision—how we understand the word "How" may be our key to redemption. 

img-handsEikha / How can I bear alone your stress and your burden and your quarreling?” is the plaintive question of Moses, toward the beginning of his long farewell address to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 1:12).

Eikha / How it has (or How has it) become as a harlot, a faithful city—full of justice, in which righteousness would lodge; and now murderers” is the pained observation of Isaiah (1:21). 

Moses’ “Eikha / How can I bear [this] alone…?” can be understood in two ways. One is rhetorical, the way of lamentation; and the implied answer is “I can’t.” The other is the way of problem-solving (“How am I going to figure this out?”), and the implied answer is “I can.” 

The “Eikha” of Isaiah can also be understood in two ways. One is the way of lamentation (“How terrible it has become!”). The other is the way of analysis (“How has it become so terrible?”). 

It's tempting to disparage the way of lamentation in favor of the ways of problem-solving and analysis. We want to fix the problem—as quickly as possible—and not “wallow” in our feelings about it. Yet, in the desperate rush toward a quick fix, we tend to make our problems worse

Similarly, our analyzing tends to deflect accountability away from ourselves, and too often leads to another form of wrongdoing also noted by Isaiah: sh’lah etzba, or finger-pointing (Isaiah 58:9).

Butterfly HandsIf we look again at the challenge of Eikha, we may discover a clarity of vision that can only be realized if the true value of lamentation is understood and reclaimed.

Consider and call for the lamenting-women, that they may come; and send for the wise-women, that they may come. And let them hasten and raise a wailing over us, that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush waters....and teach your daughters wailing, and every woman teach her neighbor lamentation.

These are the words of the prophet Jeremiah (9:16-17, 19), to whom the book of Lamentations is also attributed. Jeremiah makes a remarkable assertion: that the expression of grief is actually a form of wisdom—and that its facilitation is a communal responsibility. 

This is further codified in the early rabbinic text of the Mishnah (Moed Katan 3:9):

What is…lamentation? That one [woman] speaks and all the rest respond after her; as it is said: “and teach your daughters wailing, and every woman teach her neighbor lamentation.”

Lamentation is a process of call and response. Traditionally, it was a powerful form of women’s leadership.  Many Jews today chant Psalms during times of trouble in a similar call-and-response mode.

Eikha / How can I bear [this] alone…?” As the subsequent Torah narrative indicates, Moses’ lament expresses a basic truth: he can't bear this alone. What he can and does do is enter the call-and-response of community, where the burdens of stress and grief can be shared. 

The “How?!” of lamentation releases and clarifies the “How” of vision—which ultimately facilitates real accountability and effective action. 
“Deep calls to deep in the voice of Your channels” (Psalm 42:8). May it be our vision to learn the wisdom of call and response when we are faced with overwhelming challenges, so that we can serve as channels of healing and support for each other through the times of crisis and pain.

An earlier version of this teaching was published by the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2011.