Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lamentations, Song of Songs and Israel's Relationship to God

There is a distinctly beautiful correlation between Song of Songs and Lamentations. [1]

At the most basic level, the titles of the two works resemble one another. These are both songs, both forms of poetry presented by a voice; one, however is a love song, jubilant, merry and uplifted, whereas one is a song of despair, haunting, terrifying and depressing. They are both songs about the same topic, however, the love between God and His nation Israel.

I am aware that Song of Songs is literally meant to depict the love between Solomon and his shepherdess, and to forestall your comments, yes, most probably Artscroll ought to have translated the song literally. But they did not and their not having done so is my good fortune, for it is what led me to realize the stunning similarity between the two works.

It is in Lamentations that we are introduced to the solitary weeping maiden who has "none to comfort her among all her lovers; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies" (1:1). She is the one whose "visage is blacker than coal" (4:8), who forsook God and admits that "I called for my lovers, but they deceived me" (1:19).

How sadly this echoes the laughing maiden who declares "I am black but comely" (1:5) in Song of Songs! This maiden who would never seek other lovers, for she is content, who explains "I am my Beloved's and He longs for my perfection!" (7:11)

Song of Songs demonstrates Israel's love and faithfulness toward God; she is steadfast in her desire and longing for Him. Lamentations depicts a faithless Israel, one who has deserted God and instead chosen the cold embrace of idols of silver and gold, her new "lovers" whom she now sees have deserted her. God, the terrible and vengeful husband, decides to make her pay, and it is this awful price that is the subject of the Book of Lamentations.

The relationship between Israel and God is the subject of an intriguing number of stories in the Midrash Rabbah to Eichah. These include the following: an angry God who places his "wife," Israel, in a legal bind, an obedient Israel who can find no succor with others because they reject her due to her following God's command, Israel reproaching God, and last but not least, God's returning from a prolonged absence to find a faithful Israel awaiting him. These stories are all particularly fascinating as they put Israel in the position of the wronged woman and portray God as being a temperamental man who in the end must admit his wife is right!

The Legal Bind

Another interpretation of HOW IS SHE BECOME AS A WIDOW!: R Hama b. Ukba and the Rabbis offer explanations. [...] The Rabbis said: It may be likened to a king who was angry with his consort and wrote out her get, but got up and snatched it from her. Whenever she wished to remarry, he said to her, 'Where is your get?' and whenever she demanded her alimony, he said to her, 'But have I not divorced you?' Similarly, whenever Israel wished to practise idolatry, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them 'Where is the bill of your mother's divorcement?' (Isa. L, I); and whenever they wished that He should perform miracles for them as formerly, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, 'Have I not already divorced you?' That is what is written, I had put her away and given her a bill of divorcement (Jer. III, 8).

(Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations 1:3)

Israel Obedient

FOR THOU HAST DONE IT. It may be likened to a king who married a lady to whom he said, 'Have no intercourse with your [former] companions; borrow nothing from them and lend them nothing.' Subsequently the king became angry with her and drove her out of the palace. She went about to all her neighbors, but none would receive her. So she returned to the palace, and the king said to her, 'You have acted impudently [by coming back]!' She replied to the king, 'My lord, if I had lent them an article and borrowed one from them, and if some of my stuff was in their possession or their stuff in my possession, would they not have received me!' Similarly the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, "You have acted impudently [in appealing to Me]." They spake before Him, "Lord of the Universe, didst Thou not write in Thy Torah, Neither shalt thou make marriage with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son (Deut. VII, 3)? If we had had relations with them and intermarried with them, would they not have received us? Hence, FOR THOU HAST DONE IT.

(Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations 1:21, #56, page 145)

In effect, the queen was homeless because she obeyed her husband's command; Israel offers the same justification and states that obedience to God's command is the cause of her isolation.

Israel Reproaches God

R. Joshua of Sliknin said in the name of R. Levi: I AM THE MAN: [The Community of Israel said:] I am indeed experienced in sufferings; what pleaseth Thee is beneficial to me! It may be likened to a king who was enraged against his consort and drove her out of the palace. She went and pressed her face against the pillar. It happened that the king passed and saw her, and said to her, "You are acting impudently!" She replied, "My lord king, so it is seemly and right and proper for me to do, seeing that no other woman except me has accepted you." He retorted, "It was I who disqualified all other women [from marriage with me] for your sake." She said to him, "If that is so, why did you enter such-and-such a side street, such-and-such a court and place; was it not on account of a certain woman who rejected you?"

Similarly spake the Holy One, blessed be He, to Israel: "You are acting impudently [by praying to Me after being driven into exile."] They replied: "Lord of the Universe, so is it seemly and right and proper for us to do, seeing that no other nation except us accepted Thy Torah." He retorted, "It was I who disqualified all other nations [from accepting it] for your sake." They said to Him, if that is so, why didst Thou carry Thy Torah round to the nations for them to reject it? For it has been taught: At first He revealed Himself to the sons of Esau; that is what is written, And He said: The Lord came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them (Deut XXXIII, 2), but they rejected it. Then He offered it to the sons of Ishmael who rejected it, as it is written, He shined forth from Mount Paran (ib.). Finally He offered it to Israel who accepted it, as it is written, And He came forth from the myriads holy, at His right hand was a fiery law unto them (ib.); and it is also written, All that the Lord hath spoken will we do, and obey (Ex. XXIV, 7).

(Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations 3:1, page 189)

Faithful Israel

THIS I RECALL TO MY MIND, THEREFORE HAVE I HOPE (III, 21). R. Abba b. Kahana said in the name of R. Johanan: To what may this be likened? To a king who married a lady and made a large settlement upon her, saying to her, "So many state-apartments am I preparing for you, so many fine purple garments am I giving you." The king left her, departed to a distant country and tarried there. Her neighbors visited her and vexed her by telling her, "The king has left you, gone away to a distant country and will never return to you." She wept and sighed; but whenever she entered her room, she opened [the chest where it was deposited], took out her settlement and read it. On seeing therein, "So many state-apartments am I preparing for you, so many fine purple garments am I giving you," she was at once comforted. Eventually the king returned and said to her, "My daughter, I wonder how you waited for me all these years." She answered, "My lord king, had it not been for the generous settlement which you wrote and gave me, my neighbors would long ago have caused me to perish."

In like manner, the heathens vex Israel by saying to them, "Your God has hidden His face from you and removed His Shechinah from your midst; He will return to you no more." They weep and sigh; but when they enter their Synagogues and House of Study, read in the Torah and find written therein, And I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful and multiply you...and I will set My tabernacle among you...and I will walk among you (Lev. XXVI, 9 ff.), they are comforted. In the time to come when the era of the redemption arrives, the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Israel: "My sons, I wonder how you waited for Me all these years;" and they will speak before Him: "Lord of the universe, had it not been for Thy Torah which Thou has given us, the heathen peoples would long ago have recalled us to perish." Therefore it is stated, THIS I RECALL TO MY MIND and THIS indicates nothing else than the Torah, as it is said, And this is the Torah (Deut. IV, 44).

(Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations 3:21, #7, page 199)

So you see, these stories all seem quite subversive, as it's God who comes off in a bad light, not Israel! Nevertheless, this is what we find in the Midrash Rabbah. The last one is quite interesting, as it suggests it is natural to work for reward and that it is fine to do so, that indeed, God does not expect to be welcomed back by so faithful a people and wonders how they managed to remain loyal!

It is fascinating to explore the multi-layered and complex relationship between God and His people; at times He is right to be angry with us and at times, it seems, we have compelling arguments with which to defend ourselves. I particularly enjoy the idea that we were the only nation who would have Him as a husband, hence He ought not to complain!


[1] There is a literary technique where one creates "mirror" poems, poems that are alike in nature of the idea being discussed but which demonstrate the other side of the coin, the other side of the picture. Blake is best known for utilizing this technique; his Songs of Innocence as opposed to his Songs of Experience demonstrate it. (Compare "Nurse's Song" by each category in order to understand what I mean.) I believe that Song of Songs and Lamentations demonstrate this idea as well, though not as exactly as Blake did.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this.


Anonymous said...

An informative post.
Where do you get your energy to research this while fasting?
My headache is kiling me....

Chana said...

Y, thanks so much!

Anonymous 7:19,

I have actually been reading Midrash Rabbah to Eicha all day (see post below for more details.) So this is not research; this is merely using what I've read today!

Strangely, this has not only kept me preoccupied but has allowed me to think clearly, hence no headache.