Monday, July 31, 2006

353. Eikha

As if things aren't depressing enough already, this Wednesday night and Thursday are Tisha beAv, the ninth day of the month of Av. It's a minor holiday in the grand scheme of things, but packs a lot of weight: both Temples were destroyed on 9 Av, a date that also commemorates the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Bar Kokhba revolt, the beginning of World War I, the AMIA bombings in Buenos Aires in 1994, and many other tragedies. "When Av enters, joy decreases."

I'm learning to chant chapter 4 of Eikha, Lamentations, traditionally read in the dark while sitting on the floor, as if in mourning, on Wednesday evening. I'm reading it again at the Thursday morning service, and also chanting haftarah (the same one I read when I first learned in 2003) on Thursday afternoon.

Despite appearances, I'm not trying to drown in misery. I've wanted to learn Eikha trop since I first heard it it a few years ago and was intrigued by its pairing of grim words with a gentle, sing-songy melody. (Here's an MP3 of The Virtual Cantor chanting chapter 4, somewhat jauntier than I'll be doing it.) At times it's as repetitive and hypnotic as a lullaby, and then you glance down at the text and are jarred awake:

4:9. Better off were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, for they ooze, pierced by the fruits of the field.
4:10. The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they have become their food in the destruction of the daughter of my people.
4:11. The Lord has spent His fury, He has poured out His fierce anger, and He has kindled a fire in Zion, which has consumed her foundations.

(Chapter 3 is sung a little differently, in a plaintive minor cadence. This makes more sense to me.)

Why is Eikha trop so childlike, so achingly beautiful? I wonder if the ancient rabbis who devised these tunes were trying to make the message more bearable to human ears, or perhaps they believed a simpler melody would encourage us to focus on the words themselves rather than their sounds. (I'm reading Torah again in a few weeks, a tongue-twisting grocery list of 23 non-kosher birds. The trop, thankfully, is exactly the same from line to line, suggesting that the Masoretes were realistic and compassionate guys.)

The haftarah from Isaiah, which is read on the afternoon of all fast days, tempers the day's grief with more positive words:

So says God, "Maintain justice and perform equity, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will reveal itself... To them will I give in My house and within My walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters--I will give them an everlasting name which will remain imperishable."

"A monument and a name," yad vashem. God will be with us forever.

Joy has decreased enough this year. I pray that God will live up to His word and that no new tragedies are added to those for which we mourn on Tisha beAv.

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