In the Book of Lamentations, Eicha, the prophet Jeremiah records his impressions of the destructions of Jerusalem and the First Temple, 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 he even seems to challenge God for allowing it to happen, yet it also contains elements of prayer, faith and hope.
The shock of the devastation of Jerusalem is so great mainly because so many were convinced that it would never happen (Lamentations 4:12). Even the 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 place their trust in Jeremiah and in the Lord (see for example Jeremiah 26). Furthermore, the contrast between what Jerusalem 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 men called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth?” (Lamentation 2:15).
How did it happen? What led to the great destruction of the Holy Land and the exile of the Jews? Jeremiah answers “It is because of the sins of her prophets, and the iniquities of her priests, that have shed the blood of the just in the midst of her” (Lamentation 4:13). Throughout the Bible, the Jews are told that the Land of Israel is their eternal inheritance, but living in the land is dependent upon following God and his Torah. The prophets warn over and over again that continuing to sin, abandon God, and treat other inappropriately will lead to destruction and exile from the land. And ultimately that is what happened. However, Jeremiah also reminds us that God 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 God and rebuild their connection with Him, even in the exile.
Among the mourning, the sorrow and the misery of the Book of Lamentations, therefore, there are elements of faith and optimism. In the middle of chapter 3, the prophet declares “Surely the LORD’S mercies are not consumed, surely His compassions fail not” (3:22). He continues a little further in the chapter: “For the Lord will not cast off for ever. For though He cause grief, yet will He have compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men (3:31-33). Jeremiah is reminding us that destruction and exile from the Land of Israel is not an indication of divorce between God and His nation. Rather, the exile is meant to serve as a rehabilitative experience. It is meant to trigger introspection, evaluation of our behavior and relationship with the Lord, and lead us to recommit ourselves to God and to each other. Indeed, Jeremiah himself composes a letter to the exiles in which he gives them the guidelines for surviving in the exile and promises redemption if they call out to the Lord (Jeremiah 28).
Similarly, the Talmud relates that a number of leading sages were visiting Jerusalem following the destruction of the Temple, and they came upon the ruins of the Temple Mount. Upon seeing a fox scamper across the holiest site in the world, three of the four rabbis began to cry. The great Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, began to laugh joyously. Shocked, they asked him to explain his behavior. Rabbi Akiva explained that if the prophecies of destruction had indeed been fulfilled, we can be certain that the promises of redemption will also be fulfilled. The Book of Lamentations, therefore, calls on us to “search and try our ways, and return to the LORD,” (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 teaches that those who participate in mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem, will merit to participate in rejoicing over the rebuilding of the Holy City. Throughout the Jewish life cycle, we express our sorrow for the fact that the Temple is no longer with us, and that God’s presence is further away as a result. For this reason, we break a glass at Jewish weddings to remember Jerusalem even at our happiest occasions. But on the 9th of Av, our mourning for Jerusalem is particularly vivid. For more than 24 hours, we don’t eat, drink, or even greet each other with a simple hello. Rather, we sit on the floor and recall the events surrounding the destruction as if it just happened by reciting the Book of Lamentations and other prayers of lament. In this way, we come to grips with what we have lost. It is the Book of Lamentations that best expresses our broken hearts as we call out again and again, “Eicha, How desolate is our city of Jerusalem?!”
For 2,000 years we have mourned together over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. In modern times, we have begun to experience the rebirth of the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. May we merit to see God’s comfort, and the fulfillment of the rest of the redemption, through the coming of the Messiah and the immediate building of the Third Temple.