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Moments of crisis, moments that threaten the existence of an individual or a community, intensify a person’s desire to pray. At such times a person’s thirst for life becomes fully apparent. One who is aware of his weakness and transience seeks refuge in a greater, eternal world that can offer him salvation. Prayer articulates this search.

The tribulations that Israel endured at the time of the Temple’s destruction stirred the believers to prayer. The despair and grief brought the people to engage in soul-searching and return to God, and the Book of Lamentations bears witness to the prayers offered during that period. Not only do the five dirges in the book express the people’s pain and suffering, they also petition God to hear their cries and bring them relief. Over the course of time, these dirge-prayers were incorporated into the synagogue ritual. It is only natural that this book, born out of prayer, should return to prayer and become an integral part of it.

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The Book of Lamentations, however, is not only an expression of prayer; it also addresses the essence of prayer. The petitioner-lamenter whose world has been destroyed asks himself fundamental questions about his relationship with God. Through prayer, he defines his relationship with his Maker, clarifying its very essence.

In order to offer true prayer, the petitioner must recognize that one can turn only to God, and to no other. This exclusivity is a fundamental condition for prayer; without it, true prayer is impossible. On the contrary, in the absence of such exclusivity, his prayer may become an expression of idol worship, which has nothing in common with the service of God.

The lamenter offers his prayer only after he is certain that all those he had trusted will not save him in his time of crisis. Only after all of his illusions about the ruling regime in Judah, on the one hand, and the alliances with the regional powers, on the other, have been shattered, and only after he is convinced that his only hope is God – do his petitions turn into true prayer.

The lamenter movingly describes the collapse of the people’s official leadership:

My priests and my elders perished in the city. (1:19)
And He has spurned in the indignation of His anger both king and priest. (2:6)
Her king and her princes are among the nations; there is no Torah; her prophets also find no vision from the Lord. (2:9; and see 2:20)

The priests, the king, the elders, and even the prophets no longer fulfill their roles. The institutions of the central government have ceased to function, and there is no reason to believe in the national leadership, whose utter paralysis is now exposed.

As stated, the countries that Zion had trusted have also proven to be a disappointment:

Among all her lovers she has none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. (1:2)

At times, the lamenter uses sharp sarcasm to illustrate the disappointment with Israel’s so-called allies:

As for us, our eyes do yet fail for our vain help; in our watching we have watched for a nation that could not save. (4:17)

The regional powers, such as Egypt and Assyria (5:6), do not come to Israel’s aid. The people in Zion are well aware of their isolation; the lamenter frequently tells us that Zion is alone and solitary, because “she has none to comfort her” (1:2, 17, 21).

The regimental forces were unable to defend Zion, and international agreements and alliances could not save Israel in a time of crisis. Disappointed with human power, Zion turns to God. And it is precisely this single-minded shift toward God that gives the prayers in Lamentations their power:

Behold, O Lord; for I am in distress; my bowels are troubled. (1:20)
Behold, O Lord, and consider to whom you have done this. (2:20)
O Lord, You have seen my wrong; judge my cause. (3:59)
Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us; consider, and behold our insult. (5:1)

The Book of Lamentations comprises many different situations and types of prayer. The lamenter lives wholly in the world of prayer. We find many different emotions in the book: memories of the past and afflictions of the present, the fear of doom and the grace of hope, the pangs of despair and the support of faith.

The lamenter’s prayers include words of praise and thanksgiving, as well as many words of supplication and entreaty. But they also incorporate arguments with God: the lamenter not only requests, but also demands, that he be accorded justice. Demands for justice are found in the prayers of Abraham (Gen. 18), Moses (Ex. 32), and Jeremiah (Jer. 12). In similar fashion, the author of Lamentations seeks true justice:

O Lord, You have seen my wrong; judge my cause. (3:59)

Yet the lamenter does not stand alone before his Creator; his voice is the voice of all his brothers. In several places in the book, the author speaks in the plural, as if his words were being uttered by the entire Jewish people. The entire nation stands before God and directs their prayers to Him:

Let us lift up our heart with our hands to God in the heavens. (3:41)

All of Jerusalem stands united before God in prayer and supplication. The lamenter calls out to the wall of Jerusalem that it too should sound its voice (see 2:18-19). He asks the wall of the daughter of Zion to cry out, to let tears run down, to pour out its heart and to lift up its hands. The linguistic richness in this passage expresses the depth of the lamenter’s emotions. The prayer’s totality echoes the idea of “all my bones shall say” (Ps. 35:10).

Dr. Gabriel Cohn
Dr. Gabriel Cohn

The lamenter wants all the people, all of Zion, and even the stones of Jerusalem to participate in his prayer experience. The lone petitioner experiences his entire world as prayer; in this way, the prayer of an individual turns into a prayer of the community.

While at many points the lamenter feels exceedingly close to God, at other times he feels distanced and even alienated from Him. We perceive this constant tension between intimacy with God and remoteness from Him, which expresses God’s presence on the one hand and His transcendence on the other, throughout the Book of Lamentations.

Sometimes the lamenter even feels that God is not heeding his prayers, but this does not raise any doubts in his mind about the existence of God. Even if he is troubled by the rejection of his prayers, he does not question the existence of God. On the contrary, he explains God’s disregard of his prayers in theological terms, as an active rejection of his prayers. It is not that God does not hear his prayers, but rather it is God’s will that prevents man’s prayers from reaching heaven:

You have heard my voice; hide not Your ear at my sighing, at my cry. You did draw near in the day that I called upon You; You did say, Fear not. O Lord, You have pleaded the causes of my soul; You have redeemed my life. (3:56-58)

Generally in Scripture, the petitioner finds consolation and hope in his dialogue with God (see, for example, Ps. 3). In Lamentations, the petitioner’s inability to create an unmediated connection to God is an important feature. Prayer in the Book of Lamentations is characterized by the constant struggle over the very existence of prayer and the constant aspiration to true prayer that will express the living bond with God. The lamenter does not always feel his prayer has been heard, but even in moments of remoteness and alienation, and even in times of loneliness and abandonment, he sees his situation through the bright illumination of his faith.

The lamenter is well aware that God does not accept prayer without repentance, in line with the prophet’s teaching: “Even when you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood” (Is. 1:15).3 The petitioner must be ready to change his own attitude toward God’s commands if he wants God to change His attitude toward him. If he is willing to take steps to draw closer to God by mending his ways, he may demand of God that He change His decree. We discern sin throughout the book; it involves confession, and thus opens the door to the process of repentance:

Jerusalem has grievously sinned; therefore she is become loathsome. (1:8)
The crown is fallen from our head; woe to us, that we have sinned. (5:16)

It is clear from the descriptions of the sins of Zion and Judah that the author does not mention sin for the sake of historical record alone but rather to stir the people to repentance, as a necessary part of prayer.

Prayer and repentance are inseparably entwined. Both are expressions of inner struggle, aiming to merit a response from God.

Both the man who prays and the man who repents are in need of God’s assistance, that He should come out to greet him; he cannot satisfy his yearning for God without the help of God himself. Prayer and repentance are two-way processes, requiring not only human action, but also the active participation of God:

Turn us to You, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old. (5:21)

The lamenter stands before God, recognizing that he must repent, as he has no one to turn to but Him – and the nation as a whole stands with him. Prayer involves the acceptance of God’s rule in the world and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. The petitioner accepts God’s exclusive dominion and submits to Him. Sometimes he argues with God about the way He governs the world, but the believer always ultimately accepts God in all of His manifestations.

At times, however, the lamenter draws close to despair, and hope appears distant (see 2:13 and 5:20). But the lamenter overcomes his despair, finding in his faith a source of consolation and hope.

God, whom the lamenter seeks and in whom he places his trust and hope, is the God of mercy and compassion. In times of calamity it is difficult for him to feel God’s mercy, but he will recognize it in the end. The believer who puts his trust in God’s kindness will have a part in it, for God’s faithfulness is great to those who believe in Him:

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope; that the Lord’s steadfast love has not ceased, and that His compassions do not fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. (3:21–23)

Faith in the eternal God and trust in His love and compassion are the bedrock of the lamenter’s hope and consolation in his hour of affliction. The suffering of the children of Zion is temporary, and God will return to them in great compassion:

For the Lord will not cast off forever; but though He cause affliction, yet will He have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love. (3:31–32)
You, O Lord, are enthroned forever; Your throne is from generation to generation. (5:19)

The lamenter, whose faith had weakened in the aftermath of tragedy, acknowledges his own mortality, aware that, in contrast to his earthly world that was destroyed, God exists beyond time and place. Through his prayer to God, he overcomes his own transience, binding himself to eternal life.

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Dr. Gabriel H. Cohn is an educator and biblical scholar at Bar Ilan University, specializing in literary exegesis of the Bible and the study of midrashic commentaries. He is a leading disciple of the Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz. This essay was adapted from “Textual Tapestries: Explorations of the Five Megillot,” published by Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers.