Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: God Laments

The Midrash on Lamentations not only elaborates on the circumstances surrounding the fall of the Temple, but inquires as to the reasons. The blame is placed largely upon the Jews themselves: they were punished for neglecting the Law, and for the sin of “causeless hatred” of one another. Their own self-destructive behavior made their fate inevitable.

But constantly breaking through the Midrash is a protest against this very same explanation. The exceptional horror of Israel’s suffering is out of all proportion to the nature of its “sinning.” The Midrash refuses at times to justify God’s ways, argues with His decisions—and often wins! At other times, it offers an idea more consolatory: the suggestion that the Jew’s fate is shared by God Himself. God suffers and weeps, and goes disconsolately into exile along with Israel.

The passages published here follow the translation of the Midrash Rabbah on Lamentations by the Reverend Dr. A. Cohen, Soncino Press, London.—Herbert Weiner.

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R. Simeon Ben Lakish said: God may be likened to a king who had two sons. He became enraged against the first of them, took a stick, and thrashed him so that he writhed in agony and died; and the father then began to lament over him. He later became enraged against the second son, took a stick, and thrashed him so that he writhed in agony and died; and the father then exclaimed, “No longer have I the strength to lament over them, so call for the mourning women and let them lament over them.”

Similarly the ten tribes were exiled, and He began to lament over them, Hear ye this word which I take up for a lamentation over you, O house of Israel (Amos 5:1). But when Judah and Benjamin were exiled, the Holy One, blessed be He—if it is possible to say so–declared, “No longer have I the strength to lament over them.” Hence it is written, Call for the mourning women . . . and let them make haste, and take up a wailing for Us (Jer. 9:17 f.). It is not written here “for them,” but “for Us,” i.e. for Me and them. “That Our eyes may run down with tears”—it is not written here “that their eyes may run down with tears,” but “Our eyes,” i.e. Mine and theirs. It is not written here, “And their eyelids gush out with water,” but “Our eyelids,” i.e. Mine and theirs.

“And in that day did the Lord, the God of hosts, call to weeping and to lamentation”: at the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to destroy the Temple, He said, “So long as I am in its midst, the nations of the world will not touch it; but I will close My eyes so as not to see it, and swear that I will not attach Myself to it until the time of the end arrives.” Then came the enemy and destroyed it. Forthwith the Holy One, blessed be He, swore by His right hand and placed it behind Him. So it is written, He hath drawn back His right hand from before the enemy (Jer. 2:3). At that time the enemy entered the Temple and burnt it. When it was burnt, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “I no longer have a dwelling-place in this land; I will withdraw My Shekinah from it and ascend to My former habitation”; so it is written, “I will go and return to My place, till they acknowledge their guilt, and seek My face” (Hos. 5:15). At that time the Holy One, blessed be He, wept and said, “Woe is Me! What have I done? I caused My Shekinah to dwell below on earth for the sake of Israel; but now that they have sinned, I have returned to My former habitation. Heaven forfend that I become a laughter to the nations and a byword to human beings!

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Ministering Angels, “Come, let us go together and see what the enemy has done in My house.” Forthwith the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Ministering Angels went, Jeremiah leading the way. When the Holy One, blessed be He, saw the Temple, He said, “Certainly this is My house and this is My resting-place into which enemies have come, and they have done with it whatever they wished.” And that time the Holy One, blessed be He, wept and said, “Woe is Me for My house! My children, where are you? My priests, where are you? My lovers, where are you? What shall I do with you, seeing that I warned you but you did not repent?” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Jeremiah, “I am now like a man who had an only son, for whom he prepared a marriage-canopy, but he died under it. Feelest thou no anguish for Me and My children? Go, summon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses from their sepulchres, for they know how to weep.”

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There and then Jeremiah went to the cave of Machpelah and said to the patriarchs of the world: “Arise, for the Holy One, blessed be He.” They said to him, “For what purpose?” He answered, “I know not,” because he was afraid lest they say, “In thy lifetime has such a thing happened to our children!” Jeremiah left them, and stood by the bank of the Jordan and called out, “Son of Amram, son of Amram, arise, the time has come when thy presence is required before the Holy One, blessed be He.” He said to him, “How is this day different from other days that my presence is required before the Holy One, blessed be He?” Jeremiah replied, “I know not.”

Moses left him and proceeded to the Ministering Angels, whom he recognized from the time of the giving of the Torah. He said to them, “O celestial ministers, know ye why my presence is required before the Holy One, blessed be He?” They replied, “Son of Amram, knowest thou not that the Temple is destroyed and Israel gone into exile?” He cried aloud and wept until he reached the patriarchs. They immediately also rent their garments, placed their hands upon their heads, and cried out and wept until they arrived at the gates of the Temple. When the Holy One, blessed be He, saw them, immediately In that day did the Lord, the God of hosts, call to weeping, and to lamentation, and to baldness, and to girding with sackcloth (Isa. 22:12). Were it not explicidy stated in Scripture, it would be impossible to say such a thing, but they went weeping from one gate to another like a man whose dead is lying before him, and the Holy One, blessed be He, lamented saying, “Woe to the King Who succeeded in His youth but failed in His old age!”

. . . Moses said to Jeremiah, “Walk before me, so that I may go and bring them in and see who dares to touch them.” Jeremiah replied, “It is impossible for me to walk along the road because of the slain.” He said to him, “Nevertheless let us go.” Forthwith Moses went, Jeremiah leading the way, until they arrived at the rivers of Babylon. When the exiles beheld Moses, they said one to another, “The son of Amram has come from his grave to redeem us from the hand of our adversaries.” A “Bath Kol” issued forth and announced, “This is a decree from Me.” Moses at once said to them, “My children, it is not possible to take you back [now] since it is so decreed, but the All-present will soon cause you to return”; and then he left them. Thereupon they lifted their voices in loud weeping until the sound of it ascended above. So it is written, By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept (Ps. 137:1). When Moses came to the patriarchs of the world, they asked him, “What did the enemy do to our children?” He replied, “Some of them they killed; the hands of others they bound behind their backs; others were fettered with iron chains; others were stripped naked; others died by the way and their carcasses were food for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of earth; and others were exposed to the sun, hungry and thirsty.” Forthwith they all began to weep and utter lamentations. . . .

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Moses lifted up his voice, saying, “Cursed be thou sun! Why didst thou not become dark when the enemy entered the Temple!” The sun replied, “By thy life, O Moses, faithful shepherd, how could I become dark when they did not permit me and did not leave me alone? But they beat me with sixty whips of fire and said to me, ‘Go, pour forth thy light.’ ” Moses again lifted up his voice, saying, “Woe to thy brilliance, O Temple, how has it become obscured! Woe that its time has come to be destroyed, for the edifice to be reduced to ruins, for school children to be massacred, and their parents to go into exile and captivity and perish by the sword!” Moses again lifted up his voice, saying, “O captors, I charge you, if you kill, do not kill with a cruel death; do not make a complete extermination; do not slay a son in the presence of his father nor a daughter in the presence of her mother; because a time will come when the Lord of heaven will exact a reckoning of you.” But the wicked Chaldeans refused to comply with his request, and they brought a son into the presence of his mother, and said to his father, “Arise, slay him.” His mother wept, and her tears fell upon him, and his father hung his head.

He [Moses] further spake before Him: “Sovereign of the Universe, Thou hast written in Thy Torah, Whether it be a cow or ewe, ye shall not kill it and its young both in one day (Lev. 22:28); but have they not killed many, many mothers and sons, and Thou art silent!” At that moment, the matriarch Rachel broke forth into speech before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, “Sovereign of the Universe, it is revealed before Thee that Thy servant Jacob loved me exceedingly and toiled for my father on my behalf seven years. When those seven years were completed and the time arrived for my marriage with my husband, my father planned to substitute another for me to wed my husband for the sake of my sister. It was very hard for me, because the plot was known to me and I disclosed it to my husband; and I gave him a sign whereby he could distinguish between me and my sister, so that my father should not be able to make the substitution. After that I relented, suppressed my desire, and had pity upon my sister that she should not be exposed to shame. In the evening they substituted my sister for me with my husband, and I delivered over to my sister all the signs which I had arranged with my husband so that he should think that she was Rachel. More than that, I went beneath the bed upon which he lay with my sister; and when he spoke to her she remained silent and I made all the replies in order that he should not recognize my sister’s voice. I did her a kindness, was not jealous of her, and did not expose her to shame. And if I, a creature of flesh and blood, formed of dust and ashes, was not envious of my rival and did not expose her to shame and contempt, why shouldest Thou, a King Who liveth eternally and art merciful, be jealous of idolatry in which there is no reality, and exile my children and let them be slain by the sword, and their enemies have done with them as they wished!”

Forthwith the mercy of the Holy One, blessed be He, was stirred, and He said, “For thy sake, Rachel, I will restore Israel to their place.” And so it is written, Thus saith the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuseth to be comforted for her children, because they are not (Jer. 31:15). This is followed by, Thus saith the Lord: Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears; for thy work shall be rewarded. . . and there is hope for thy future, saith the Lord; and thy children shall return to their own border.

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The Midrash (literally, “exposition” or “interpretation”) is a collection of law, legend, history, and fantasy commenting on the Bible. “Blessings and Consolations” is the way the Midrash describes its own function.

The excerpts translated below show how the rabbis offered “blessings and consolation” for what they considered the greatest Jewish tragedy—the destruction of the Temple, and the Exile. Implicit in these events is the paradox of Jewish history: why those who claim to be the most chosen seem so often to suffer the fate of the most rejected.

On the ninth of Av (August 8, this year) this paradox becomes most apparent, for on this day, legend claims, both the First and Second Temples were destroyed. Later catastrophes, like the expulsion from Spain, were also supposed to have occurred on this day, which therefore has been set aside for fasting and lamentation. On the eve of the ninth of Av, by the light of candles, the Lamentations of Jeremiah are chanted. (Oh, how doth the city sit solitary that was once full of people. . . . they begin.) The suffering and mourning of all generations of Israel are included in this dirge.

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