In Megillat Eicha, Lamentations, the prophet Yirmiyahu records his impressions of the destruction of Yerushalayim and the first Beit Hamikdash, and the exile of the Jews from the land of Israel. It is a very emotional book in which the prophet expresses feelings of intense loneliness, a sense of utter abandonment, desolation, desecration of that which was sacred, pain and suffering. There are times when Yirmiyahu even seems to challenge Hashem for allowing this to happen, yet the book also contains elements of prayer, faith and hope.
The shock of the devastation of Yerushalayim is so great, especially because so many were convinced that the tragedy would never happen (Lamentations 4:12). Even many Jews themselves chose to believe the false prophets who told them that God would never destroy His Temple nor exile His people from the chosen land, rather than placing their trust in Yirmiyahu and in Hashem (see for example Jeremiah 26). Furthermore, the contrast between what Yerushalayim had been, and what it had become, is so shocking that even the other nations are astonished by what they see: ““Is this the city that was called ‘Perfect in Beauty, Joy of All the Earth?’” (Lamentations 2:15).
How did it happen? What led to the great destruction of the Holy Land and the exile of the Jews? Yirmiyahu answers “It was for the sins of her Neviim, the iniquities of her Kohanim, who had shed in her midst” (Lamentations 4:13). Throughout the Bible, the Jews are told that Eretz Yisrael is their eternal inheritance, but that living in the land is dependent upon following God and His Torah. The prophets warn again and again that continuing to sin, abandoning Hashem, and treating others inappropriately will lead to destruction and exile. Ultimately, that is what happened. However, Yirmiyahu also reminds us that Hashem did not abandon His people and His land, even though He destroyed the place where they connect to Him most. Their new challenge is to find Hashem and rebuild their connection with Him, even in exile.
Amidst the mourning, sorrow and misery of Megillat Eicha, there are elements of faith and optimism. In the middle of chapter 3, the prophet declares “The kindness of Hashem has not ended, His mercies are not spent” (3:22). He continues a little further in the chapter: “For Hashem does not reject forever, but first afflicts, then pardons in His abundant kindness. For He does not willfully bring grief or affliction to man” (3:31-33). Yirmiyahu reminds us that destruction and exile from the land of Israel is not an indication of a divorce between Hashem and His nation. Rather, the exile is meant to serve a rehabilitative function. It is meant to trigger introspection, evaluation of our behavior and relationship with Hashem, and to lead us to recommit ourselves to God and to each other. Indeed, Yirmiyahu himself composes a letter to the exiles in which he gives them the guidelines for surviving in exile, and promises redemption if they call out to Hashem (Jeremiah 28).
Similarly, the Talmud (Makkot 24b) relates that a number of leading Sages were visiting Yerushalayim following the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, and they came upon the ruins of the Temple Mount. Seeing a jackal scamper across the holiest site in the world, three of the four rabbis started to cry. The great Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, began to laugh joyously. Shocked, the others asked him to explain his behavior. Rabbi Akiva replied that if the prophecies of destruction have so clearly been fulfilled, we can be certain that the promises of redemption will also be fulfilled. Megillat Eicha, therefore, calls on us to “search and examine our ways, and turn back to Hashem” (3:40). It ends with a call to the Lord to fulfill those prophecies of redemption and “renew our days as of old” (5:21).
The Talmud (Taanit 30b) teaches that those who participate in mourning for the destruction of Yerushalayim will merit to participate in rejoicing over its rebuilding. Throughout the cycle of life, Jews express sorrow for the fact that the Beit Hamikdash is no longer with us, and that as a result, God’s presence is more distant. For this reason, a glass is broken at Jewish weddings, to remember Yerushalayim even at the happiest of occasions. And once a year, on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, the mourning for Yerushalayim is particularly vivid. For more than twenty-four hours it is forbidden to eat or drink; Jews sit on the floor as an expression of mourning, and recall the events surrounding the destruction by reciting Megillat Eicha and other prayers of lament, as if the tragedy had just happened. In this way, it is possible to come to grips with what has been lost. Megillat Eicha is the text that best expresses our broken hearts as we call out again and again, Eicha (איכה), ‘alas,’ or ‘how [did this happen].’
For almost two thousand years, Jews have mourned over the destruction of Yerushalayim and the Beit Hamikdash. In modern times, we have begun to experience the rebirth of the land of Israel and the Holy City. May we merit to quickly see Hashem’s comfort and the fulfillment of the rest of the redemption, through the coming of the Mashiach and the building of the third Beit Hamikdash.