Friday, July 31, 2009

Lily, Tisha Ba'av and Songs of Loss

It has been a few years since I've heard a reading of Eichah (Lamentations). I only attend shul when it involves my family and so I've skipped the last few Tisha Ba'av's.

I've always liked Eichah - one of the few bright spots of Tisha Ba'av - if you could call it that. In my opinion it is the most purely poetic of the Megilote, and perhaps the apex of poetry in all of the biblical writings. The magic is in how the canter and voicing of the words mesh together. The phrasing is repetitive but each verse contains a phonic variation which gives the reading a beautiful and powerful flow.

Poems like this are not meant to be read silently - they are to be sung slowly and hauntingly so that the majesty of the sounds can seep in.

This Tisha Ba'av found me a state of unshakable sadness. One week ago, Lily Burk, who I know only slightly as my stepdaughter's classmate and friend, was kidnapped and murdered in Los Angeles. It is the sort of sudden, shocking loss which aches through and through. There are so many dimensions about this which just boggle the mind and tear at your heart. Not only is the death of this gifted and beautiful seventeen year old girl an unspeakable tragedy, but the grim circumstances of her death are also incredibly painful. I won't recount the details - they have been well enough reported.

What struck me so powerfully as I listened to Eichah at this painful time was how soothing the sounds of the verses really were. Eichah represents a genre of literature which has been lost. And, with it, we may have lost one of our greatest means to deal with overwhelming loss and grief. The poem is comforting in how it voices our grief - it gives expression to those feelings for which ordinary words fail.

Scholars point out that Eichah follows the stylistic genre of the "City Lament", of which there are many examples in Sumerian and Mesopotamian literature. Here is an excerpt from "The Lament of Urim". Those who are familiar with Eichah will immediately see the similarities:

"O city, your name exists but you have been destroyed. O city, your wall rises high but your Land has perished. O my city, like an innocent ewe your lamb has been torn from you. O Urim, like an innocent goat your kid has perished. O city, your rites have been alienated from you, your powers have been changed into alien powers. How long will your bitter lament grieve your lord who weeps? How long will your bitter lament grieve Nanna who weeps? "

This poem predates Eichah by around 1,500 years, being composed around 2000 BC. The literary style is far less sophisticated, though I'm sure that it is better in the original language - and probably better still if one has a context for the imagery used. I sometimes can't help wondering if one of the reasons that the Torah has been so successful is that it's just plain written better.

I wonder about the disappearance of this genre of poetry. Perhaps it really only has the same power when it is recited out loud, and loses too much of the auditory flavor when it is read. It is interesting that while I like Eichah, I hate the Kinote. Part of that is because they are simply too torturously long - especially for a dyslexic like me. But part of if may be that, although many of them are beautiful poems, when you read them to yourself they come across as dry and repetitive.

But this year I let the words and sounds of Eichah flow over me and perhaps help mend the wound in my heart for Lily Burk and for all who feel her loss so deeply.

עַל-אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה, עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם--כִּי-רָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם, מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי

"Of this I weep,
my eyes...
my eyes flow with tears -
consolation is far from me,
restore my soul."

May we heal and remember her with joy.