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Overview: Book of Lamentations

May 9, 2009 | by Avi Geller

Jeremiah describes the tragedy of the Temple's destruction. The lessons are true still today.

The traveler's sobbing was so intense that it awoke Berel the innkeeper. His wife was very nervous. "Why is our guest crying so bitterly in the middle of the night?" she asked. "Something must have happened!"

Berel entered the guestroom to find a simple Jew, dressed like a peasant, shoeless, sitting on the floor, crying bitter tears over the Jewish exile from Israel. [This man was really a pious chassidic master, traveling "incognito" to learn of the situation of the world. Every midnight (besides Shabbat and festivals) he would arise to bemoan the destruction of our Holy Temples.]

"Why are you crying?" asked Berel. "What disaster has befallen you?"

The rabbi replied simply, "I cry over our Temple's destruction, and I beseech the Almighty to bring the Messiah who will return us to the Holy Land."

Berel was relieved, "Is that it?! Then please keep your wailing down so that you don't disturb the other guests!" With that Berel returned to his bedroom and informed his wife of the cause of the disturbance.

Five minutes later there was a knock on the rabbi's door. It was Berel again. "My wife would like to know if the Messiah comes and brings us back to the Land of Israel, will we be allowed to take our chickens with us?"

The rabbi was taken aback by the question. "Chickens? As far as I am aware, it doesn't say anything about chickens. You might have to leave your chickens here when the Messiah comes."

Berel duly informed his wife.

Five minutes later, another knock. Berel: "My wife asks you to please not pray anymore for the Messiah to come. We are doing fine here and would prefer to stay with our chickens."

At that the rabbi became agitated, "What do you mean 'fine'? Don't you know how precarious our exile is? At any moment the Cossacks could arrive and take your chickens, your wife, all your money and even your life! Aren't we better off in our Promised Land?"

To Berel, the rabbi's words made sense. But he still had to inform his wife.

Five minutes later, another knock. "My wife requests that you pray for the Messiah to come and take the Cossacks to the Land of Israel -- so we can stay here with our chickens!" (heard from Rabbi Yisroel Reisman)

This story reflects the distant attitude many Jews have concerning exile and redemption. This explains in part why mourning on Tisha B'Av and reciting the book of Lamentations is so difficult for us to relate to.

In June 1967, when the Israeli army captured the Western Wall, the Jewish soldiers burst into tears. They had just fought a bloody battle with many casualties (without air cover) and were the first Jews to touch the Wall in almost 20 years. The story is told of two secular soldiers who couldn't understand what everyone was crying over. "Yes, the Wall has historical significance, but have you ever heard of anyone crying over the Great Wall of China?" Suddenly one of them started to sob uncontrollably. "What are you crying about?" asked his buddy. Came the reply: "I don't know what there is to cry about at the Wall -- and I'm crying over the fact that I'm not crying!"

Similarly, if we don't know what there is to cry about on Tisha B'Av, we should cry over the fact that we don't know what to cry over!

A famous story is told of Napoleon Bonaparte strolling down the street on Tisha B'Av. He chanced upon a synagogue, and inquired why is everyone was sitting on the floor weeping. He was told, "We cry for our Temple destroyed almost 2,000 years ago!"

According to legend, Napoleon remarked, "A nation that can keep mourning for 2,000 years is eternal, and will surely one day rebuild their Temple." Our mourning on this day that insures our future existence. The fact that we refuse to forget (even if the anti-Semites would let us!) is the secret of our survival. (heard from Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, ob"m)


Lamentations was written by the Prophet Jeremiah, according to some opinions before the events occurred. The verses follow the Aleph-Beit in three chapters, a hint to the three cardinal sins that caused the First Temple to be destroyed. The third chapter (some say added later) alludes to the destruction of the Second Temple, caused by unjustifiable hatred. It contains three sets of Aleph-Beit, as that sin is as destructive as the three cardinal sins put together.


The prophet describes all of the suffering that befell the Jewish people at the time of the destruction of the Temple. "Eichah! How is it possible? The proud majestic city of Jerusalem, in ruins! Her inhabitants in exile! Her enemies rejoicing!"

The sages point out the similarity of the word "Eichah" (How!) and the word "Ayecha?" in Genesis when God asks "Where are you, Adam?" The answer to Jeremiah's question - How did it happen? - is that the Jewish people disregarded the Almighty, just as Adam did in the Garden of Eden.

Jeremiah paints a vivid portrait of a widow crying in the night, tears on her cheeks, with no one to comfort her, forsaken by all her friends. Likewise, Judah has been exiled and dwells in servitude among the nations, while Zion sits in mourning and desolation, missing the myriad pilgrims who would swarm her gates. Jerusalem remembers the bitter destruction, the glorious era that preceded it, and the fact that no nation came to her aid. On the contrary, the allies they depended on, reneged on them, and rejoiced over Jerusalem's desolation.

The prophet reveals the cause. Jerusalem did not have the foresight to contemplate the result of her degeneration. By forgetting her destiny she plummeted all the way down.

Jeremiah describes the enemy army entering the Temple, and the people of Jerusalem dying of hunger. To all who pass by, Jerusalem cries, "May you not suffer as I have!" Is there anything to compare this to? (The suffering of Jews throughout history, up to and including the Holocaust, is beyond any historical comparison.)

Remembering Jerusalem's past glory, no consolation is possible. However in the end we accept the Divine verdict. The chapter concludes that eventually the enemies of Israel will experience the same bitter end.


In broad strokes, the prophet pictures the glory of Israel thrown from Heaven to the ground. Jerusalem is on fire. The prophet pictures children dying of hunger, begging their mothers for food, before expiring on their mothers' bosom. There is no comparison in history to comfort you with, proclaims the prophet.

What is the cause of Israel's suffering? False prophets lulled us into a false sense of security. (The Jews didn't believe it could happen...)

All the nations pass by (so to speak) and clap and whistle in disbelief: "Is this the glorious, beautiful Jerusalem that was the joy of all the land?!" Israel's enemies open their mouths, whistle and gnash their teeth in satisfaction. "This is the event we have waited for and have finally gotten to see."

The Jews beseech the Almighty: "Look at what You have done!" The prophet replies: "Fellow Jews murdered (the prophet Zechariah) in the Temple courtyard (on Yom Kippur) for rebuking them about their deeds." Don't forget the other side of the coin!


Jeremiah cries over the fact that he witnessed punishment that previous prophets had only warned of. Jeremiah was chosen to express the pain of Jewish suffering. He sees his life as dark, as God has closed the windows of Heaven before his prayers. Jeremiah has been ambushed as by a bear or lion, and is now the laughingstock of his people who ridiculed his prophesies. They embittered his life and broke his teeth. He feels no inner peace. He has no future, yet he still hasn't lost his faith. From the depth of his pain, he turns to the Almighty in prayer. "Remember me and all of my suffering!"

Suddenly: inspiration and comfort! Jeremiah is consoled. God's kindness and mercy never ends. Miracles surround us constantly in life. God is good to those who trust in Him and seek Him out. One must never give up hope and always wait for God's salvation that will eventually come! Suffering brings us to the realization that we have free will and we should cry over our mistakes and misdeeds - the cause of all suffering. When we make a personal introspection of our deeds and fully return to God, we shall admit our responsibility. Then God will hear our prayers, fight our fights, and repay our enemies all that they have done to us.


This chapter begins with another description of Jerusalem's destruction. The gold was tarnished, the shine of the Temple darkened. The precious stones (the Jewish people) thrown into the streets! Precious Jewish children, given over to cruel enemies. Their tongues stuck to their throats in thirst and no one gives them bread. The pampered children who were used to delicacies are now picking in the garbage dump. Their bodies so ravaged by hunger as to be unrecognizable. Their faces darker then soot. Their skin shriveled on their bones.

The victims of the sword were better off than those who starved to death in agony. Merciful women cooked their own children! The nations and their kings could not believe their eyes. The blind trip over corpses in the street and are covered with blood.

The Jewish people waited in vain for their allies (Egypt) to come to their aid. The Midrash says that the Egyptians were on their way when they noticed bones in the Red Sea and remembered their ancestors.

Our enemies were lighter than the eagles. They chased us from the mountains and ambushed us in the desert. The righteous king Yoshiyahu was killed as a result of our deeds.

The chapter ends with a prophesy of the Second Temple's destruction - "Rome rejoice!" - and a consolation that in the end "You will drink from the same cup of retribution. Zion - your sins are atoned and you will suffer no more."


"Remember the Almighty!" This last chapter is one loud outcry of prayer, faith and hope. Remember what has happened to us and see our degradation. Strangers have taken our inheritance; our houses are occupied by others. We must pay to drink our water and buy our own firewood. Death through hunger ... young and old mercilessly destroyed. Our joy turned to mourning. Our crown fell off our heads.

Lamentations ends with a description of a desolate Mount Zion with foxes wandering freely about her holy abode. "For this do our hearts ache and our eyes dim."

However, the book ends with a fervent prayer for the future: "May You, Almighty, forever rule on Your throne for all generations. Why have You forsaken your people for so long?" And our final request: "Return us unto You and we will return (the baal teshuva movement!) Renew our days as of old!"

The Talmud says that when the Sages were walking through Jerusalem after the destruction, they noticed foxes strolling through the Holy of Holies. The Sages all began to weep, except for Rabbi Akiva who was laughing. When asked to explain, he declared: "Now that we have witnessed the fulfillment of the dreadful prophesy of Jeremiah, we can also be certain that Zechariah's prophesy about the rebuilding of the Temple will be fulfilled soon and in our days!"



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