Lessons in Lamentations for today’s greater world


The events of the last month in Israel have us reeling. It is not just the needless death and destruction, the pointless violence and suffering that grieves us. After events like the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli and one Palestinian youth, the hundreds of rockets fired at innocent civilians and the misery of Gaza as innocents suffer the collateral damage of Israel’s countermeasures, we wonder if there is hope for humanity. We question whether our faith can endure. 

Must this poor world always be surrounded by madness, violence and grief? How can we reconcile such suffering with faith in a loving, all-powerful God?

Beginning on the evening of Aug. 4, we observe Tisha B’Av. We read the words of the Book of Lamentations. The book bewails the destruction of Jerusalem with images and phrases that seem so contemporary. We hear the cry of despair that still echoes in the world today:

My eyes are spent with tears,

My heart is in tumult,

My being melts away

Over the ruin of my poor people,

As babes and sucklings languish

In the squares of the city.

They keep asking their mothers,

“Where is bread and wine?”

As they languish like battle-wounded

In the squares of the town,

As their life runs out

In their mothers’ bosoms.

What can I take as witness or liken

To you, O Fair Jerusalem?

What can I match with you to console you,

O Fair Maiden Zion?

For your ruin is vast as the sea:

Who can heal you?

(Lamentations 2:11-13)


As we do, Lamentations asks questions that cannot be answered. There can be no clear, definitive answers to the question of suffering and evil. Still we must ask: Who can heal our broken world? Who will put an end to the evil that drives people to seek the death of the innocent? Who will stand against the mad rage that poisons us? Who will stop the wars that still kill children? Where is God? 

One response, of course, is that not all the blame can be placed on God. It is up to us to act to confront evil, to create peace, to cure illness and to ameliorate suffering. 

That is how Lamentations resolves the paradox of evil, too. The famous second-to-last verse of the book teaches us, Hashiveinu Adonai elecha v’nashuva. Chadeish yameinu k’kedem, “Turn us, O Lord, to You and we shall return. Renew us as at the beginning” (Lamentations 5:21). We human beings must act to repair the world – but we don’t have to do it alone. When we allow God to help us turn away from evil and discover the best within ourselves, we can restore the world to its original state of balance and peace. 

Sometimes we feel unequal to the task of turning our despair into hope and action. Yet, even when the world’s problems seem vast, and our power feels puny, knowing that God responds to our impulses toward justice, forgiveness and peace gives us the strength to try anyway.

Can we believe that? Do we dare believe that God will do that for us? I think so, if we accept this caveat: God only helps us do what we are capable of doing. Sometimes, though, God helps us discover capabilities within ourselves that we never knew we had.

I do not believe that God waves a magic wand that makes the misery we inflict upon each other disappear. Rather, our faith is in a God whom we experience in our own determination to end misery, and that determination makes us capable of things beyond our imagining. God shows us the way to a world that we did not think we deserved – but we have to do the work of getting there. God turns us back to the right direction, but it is up to us take the steps toward our own redemption. 

For Israel and the Palestinians today, the imperative to reach beyond apparent limitations has never been more urgent. If we accept that there is nothing we can do to end the bitter violence and hatred, then violence and hatred truly will never end. If, on the other hand, we are brave enough to imagine a world in which hatred can be turned into tolerance, and tolerance into reconciliation, there is a chance for peace. Turn us, O Lord, to you, and we will be turned.

We know what we need to do. God has taught us. We need to be the ones who replace hatred with understanding, who vanquish terrorism with justice, who reject the fanaticism that turns peaceful religions into cults of death, and who dismantle despotism and install freedom. 

There is something deeply wrong with the world we live in – its ruin is as vast as the sea – but we have the power to do something about it. We begin by heeding and obeying the voice that tells us: “Turn!”

RABBI JEFFREY GOLDWASSER is the new spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Cranston. He writes the blog Reb Jeff at www.rebjeff.com.