Lamah Lanetzach (Lam. 5:20-22)

Music and audio © Alexander Massey 6 Dec. 2013

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20. Why have You forgotten us utterly, forsaken us for all time?
21. Turn us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, that we may be turned! Renew our days as of old.
22. For You have utterly rejected us, bitterly raged against us. [Or “Unless You have utterly rejected us, and are exceedingly angry with us.”]
Turn us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, that we may be turned! Renew our days as of old.

I see a powerful ambiguity in this text. Who is responsible for the current impasse in the relationship between God and Israel (i.e. between God and ourselves)? Verse 20 suggests that God has given up on us, and we are pleading for God to be open enough to take us back – the burden is apparently being placed firmly on God to fix things. But verse 22 seems to suggest that it is we who have turned away from God, and therefore carry some responsibility for the rift. And yet, if that is so, why do we ask God to turn us? Is it not for us to do the work, the work of returning to God? Or after God’s rejection in verse 20, have we turned away in sorrow and despair, so that in verse 21 God must make amends and give us hope so that we are persuaded to be turn back to God? That might explain the first suggested translation of verse 22. The softer, alternative translation of verse 22 could be a little bit of attempted manipulation on our part, a bit like when a cheeky lover, who knows s/he has done wrong says, “Please let’s make up, that is, unless you just don’t love me any more …”. These few verses seem to hover between anguish, complaint, yearning, remorse and tender love. It is worth noting that in Jewish tradition, when the Book of Lamentations is read, verse 21 is repeated after verse 22, in order to end the reading on a positive sentiment. [1] My musical setting is in keeping with that tradition.

So what does Jewish tradition teach us about Lamentations? On Tisha B’Av(the 9th day of the month of Av), Jews traditionally fast, and read the whole of the book of Lamentations – Eichah– to commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples, as well as massacres and tragedies throughout Jewish history. It is a moving event, in which the lights are dimmed, and people sit silently on the floor, in the darkness, listening to a solitary voice sing the whole five chapters from beginning to end.

The first word of the book, ‘Eichah!’, meaning ‘how?’, is uttered as a howl of pain and incomprehension. [2] It could be the cry of the prophet, or even of God, asking how such a terrible situation has arisen. The writer(s) of the Zohar [3] point out that the letters of the word eichah (alef-yud-kaf-hey) are the same as the word ayekah [4], meaning ‘Where are you?’ (Gen. 3:9), the question God asked of Adam when Adam had disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. The Zoharauthors suggest [5] that ayekah pre-shadows the future destruction of the Temples, and the lamentations that will come. And just as the ayekahquestion is a challenge for Adam to consider his actions, and what he can do to make repair, the eichahof Lamentations can be a call for us to consider ‘where are we?’, and what are we prepared to do now to make the world a better place.

But there is another twist in this word eichah. In 13thcentury Spain, the mystical writer Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla thought of the two letters kaf-heyas being a kabbalistic reference to God, especially the Shechinah, the living, tangible, feminine presence of God in Creation. So the word eichahcan be reinterpreted as ayei koh– ‘Where is the Shechinah, the living presence of God?’, in other words, ‘God, where are You?’.

The five chapters of Lamentations are almost unrelentingly miserable. But, right in the very centre – the heart – of the middle chapter (ch.3), are six beautiful verses of hope:

3:21. But this do I call to mind, therefore I have hope:
22. The kindness of the Eternal One has not ended, His mercies are not spent.
23. They are renewed every morning – ample is Your grace!
24. “The Eternal One is my portion”, I say with full heart; therefore will I hope in Him
25. The Eternal One is good to those who trust in Him, to the one who seeks Him;
26. It is good to wait quietly until rescue comes from the Eternal One.

In the light of all this, Lamentations appears to be a song of two broken-hearted lovers – God, and ourselves – wanting and trying to find our way back to each other, with both of us expressing, at different times, hurt, love, disappointment, tenderness, anger and blame, loss and need, an intense desire to heal the relationship, and, ultimately, hope.


[1] Similar repetitions of the penultimate verse are added in readings of the last chapters of Isaiah, Malachi and Ecclesiastes.

[2] Eichah also begins the chapters 2 and 4.

[3] The central mystical, kabbalistic text of Judaism, written in the 13thcentury.

[4] Because the vowels added to the two words are different, the words sound different, and hold different meanings, even though they are rooted and related by the same sequence of Hebrew consonants.

[5] Zohar, B’reishit 29a

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