The Art of Lament

We are all living through a very intense period in history, and watching society around us change rapidly; our day-to-day lives bear little resemblance to what they did "before." While our emotional responses vary from one another (and also likely, from day to day, even within ourselves), there is much that we have lost, and much that's worth lamenting right now.

Back in April, I met with a friend of mine who is the pastor of a church here in Queen Anne. At that point, it had been just a matter of weeks since the novel coronavirus had completely undermined and reshaped all of our day-to-day lives. He told me that he was teaching the Book of Lamentations to his congregation, explaining that the American church has long avoided lament, but that he believed it to be a critical tool in any spiritual toolbox.

In its dictionary definition, lament is both a noun and a verb: a passionate expression of grief or sorrow, or the act of mourning itself. As a spiritual act, to lament is to acknowledge and release anguish, to cry out in pain and about suffering. From those powerful cries of brokenness and complaint, the act of lamenting helps people make the subtle shift to decrying that the world is not as it ought to be. In this way, lament forces us into examination of our relationship with the suffering world, and pushes us to overcome our hubris and to open ourselves to new ways to encounter each other and the world. Thus, lament is a cry of grief, and also a powerful challenge to the status quo, both within and outside of ourselves.

We Jews are (thankfully) good at lament; it already features prominently in our spiritual toolbox. On a collective level, this time of year is when we "do lament" most intensely, as part of our powerful calendar cycle. Yesterday was Rosh Chodesh Av, which means that today we are merely a week out in our countdown to Tisha B'Av, which marks the low-point of our collective despair. Next Wednesday night, you're all invited to join as we place ourselves into the posture of mourning, and then read the words of lament (literally, the biblical book of Lamentations / Eicha) that were written in the wake of the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the First Temple.

Of course, Jewish tradition didn't stop after the Babylonian conquest/exile in 586 BCE. Over the millennia since, new layers of meaning -- and new reasons to lament -- have been added to the holiday of Tisha B'Av. On top of the destruction of the first Temple, we now overlay the destruction of the Second Temple, and also the murder of the Ten Martyrs by the Romans, the many massacres that took place in medieval Jewish communities of Europe during the Crusades, and the Holocaust.

Deep emotion -- including intense sadness, horror, terror and grief -- breeds powerful liturgy. "Eli Tziyon v'Areha" ("Wail, Zion and its cities") is an acrostic poem, probably the most famous of the kinnot (dirges or elegies) written for recitation on Tisha B'Av. Written in the Middle Ages, likely during the time of the Crusades, it is "about" the cruelties suffered by the inhabitants of Jerusalem during the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 CE, by the Romans). Twelve stanzas each close with the same powerful refrain, personifying the city of Jerusalem as a woman in intense pain or grief: "Wail, Zion and its cities, / as a woman in labor pains, / and like a maiden that dons sackcloth to mourn for the husband of her youth." If you're interested, click here to read the classic text, or here to listen to the famous melody associated with Eli Tziyon, sung here by Israeli singer/song-writer Rona Kenan. (Parenthetically, I'll add that some of you may recognize this melody from Kavana, as I tend to employ it during the Martyrology section of our traditional Yom Kippur services too, when we sing "eleh ezkerah" in memory of the Ten Martyrs;" tomorrow night, we'll sing it together on our Virtual Candle-lighting call as we welcome in the Shabbat before Tisha B'Av.)

I chose to write about the theme of lament this week not only because it's an important part of our history and tradition, but also because -- like my Christian colleague -- I believe that we are very much in need of the spiritual tool of lament today. There is so much happening around us that is worth lamenting, from the frightening presence of federal agents on the streets of Portland (and now other cities, too), to the vulnerability of countless Americans as illness spreads and unemployment rates soar. Even for those of us who are fortunate enough to have our health, and/or to live with roofs over our heads and food to eat, etc., this time is hard, period. I know -- from my own personal experience and from talking to so many of you -- that this Covid period has been incredibly taxing for all of us, in a range of ways and for a variety of reasons. It's been challenging for people who live alone, and for those who are stuck at home with family members; for people with young kids, and for those whose family members live far away. It's been hard for people with jobs, and for people without jobs. It's been hard for children of all ages, for young adults, and for older adults. This has been a hard time for those in health-care, for teachers, for social workers and therapists, and even for rabbis. We are all living through a very intense period in history, and watching society around us change rapidly; our day-to-day lives bear little resemblance to what they did "before." While our emotional responses vary from one another (and also likely, from day to day, even within ourselves), there is much that we have lost, and much that's worth lamenting right now.

In response to the challenges of the moment, two talented young Jewish professionals -- Daniel Olson and Rabbi Benjamin Goldberg -- have composed a very powerful new Eli Tziyon this year, one that specifically speaks to this moment of Coronavirus. In elegant, rhyming Hebrew that mirrors the form of the original medieval elegy, and also in poetic English, this new text laments so many aspects of the tragedy in which we find ourselves this year: isolated elderly in nursing homes, Torahs sitting untouched in synagogue arks, cancelled weddings, laid-off workers, lack of PPE. In my mind, this very contemporary liturgy is a brilliant example of how, in difficult times, we might draw on the tools of our tradition and the frameworks laid by our ancestors in the service of our own spiritual needs and well-being. You can click here to read their text, or better yet, I invite you to find six minutes sometime this week -- during the days leading up to Tisha B'Av -- to devote to listening and watching the video they created featuring the text, music and images together. I believe it will be well worth your time, and a peak into the intense power and creativity of our Jewish liturgical and musical traditions of lament.

This week, let us lament together -- both the losses of our ancestors in ancient times, and also the losses we are experiencing in real time right now. Our Jewish tradition offers us guidance as to how, and the liturgy (both old and new) can help us give voice to our pain. From there -- and perhaps only from there -- can we find our way out of the pit. Together, as we continue to move through the Jewish calendar cycle over the coming two months, we will lament and then turn the corner... traveling through comfort (nachamu), and then to reflection and introspection (cheshbon ha-nefesh), and finally towards return and repair (teshuva) as we begin a New Year.

I'm so grateful to be part of a tradition that knows how to do lament well. And, I'm so grateful to be walking through these hard times in the company of all of you.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum