In Part 1 (day before yesterday), I gave a prelude to a midrashic parable which I will share with you today. It is a parable explaining, in a very narrative way, a possible meaning of Lamentations 3:21. It’s not just any possible meaning for Lamentations 3:21. It is the meaning the sage wanted us to see. As I explained last time, midrashic interpretation is playful and creative (it’s eisegesis). It’s like Buzz Lightyear “flying” in Toy Story. It’s not interpretation with objectivity in mind, it’s interpretation with style.
THE ORIGINAL SCRIPTURE
Here is Lamentations 3:21 as a prelude now to the parable, which I will fully unfold in parts: But this do I call to mind, therefore I have hope.
In context, the speaker is observing the unspeakable tragedy that speaks of God’s absence or abdication or abandonment. God has shot his arrows into the speaker’s heart (3:13). God ground the speaker’s teeth into the gravel (3:16). He caused the speaker to say, “I have lost all hope” (3:18).
But there is a strange this which the speaker remembers and has hope because of (zot in Hebrew). What is the this?
THE MASHAL (PARABLE), David Stern’s translation (Parables in Midrash)
R. Abba bar Kahana (3rd generation Amora, c. 300 CE) said:
It is like a king who married a woman and wrote her a large marriage-settlement (ketubah). He wrote her: So many bridal chambers I am building for you; so much jewelry I make for you; so much gold and silver I give you. Then he left her for many years and left for the provinces. Her neighbors used to taunt her and say to her: Hasn’t your husband abandoned you! Go! Marry another man. She would weep and sigh, and afterward she would enter her bridal-chamber and read her marriage-settlement and sigh [with relief]. Many years and days later the king returned. He said to her: I am amazed that you have waited for me all these years! She replied: My master, O king! If not for the large wedding-settlement you wrote me, my neighbors long ago would have led me astray.
Following this mashal there will be a nimshal, an explanation or moral of the story with the relevant verses.
Hopefully you can already see where this parable is going without reading the nimshal, but additional insight sometimes comes from the explanation. Plus, in many cases the scriptural issue being discussed is not known at the beginning of a parable and while I gave you the scripture from the beginning, a good strategy for telling parables is often to wait until after the story to explain.
Also, remember last time I passed on David Stern’s observation that the Lamentations Rabbah could have achieved the same interpretation more simply, by directly comparing Lamentations 3:21 and Deuteronomy 4:44 and interpreting the word “this” by direct analogy. But the story adds something. At the end, I will talk about what the story adds dimensionally to this midrashic interpretation.
THE NIMSHAL (EXPLANATION), David Stern’s translation
Likewise: The nations of the world taunt Israel and say to them: Your God does not want you. He has left you. He has removed his presence from you. Come with us, and we will appoint you to be generals, governors, and officers.
And the people of Israel enter their synagogues and houses of study and there they read in the Torah, “I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile . . . I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you” (Lev 26:9, 11), and they console themselves.
In the future, when the redemption comes, the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Israel: My children! I am amazed at how you have waited for me all these years!
And they will say to him: Master of the Universe! Were it not for the Torah You gave us, in which we read when we entered our synagogues and houses of study, “I will look with favor upon you . . . and I will not spurn you,” the nations of the world long ago would have led us away from you.
That is what is written, “Were not your teaching my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (Ps. 119:92). Therefore, it says: “This (zot) I call to mind; therefore I have hope” (Lam 3:21).
THE REDIRECTING OF THE ORIGINAL CONTEXT
The “objective” reader of Lamentations 3 will not determine that the “this” in vs. 21 is the regular study of Torah. The original poem goes in another direction. After vs. 21, the speaker defines the “this” as things like: God’s loyal love (chesed), compassion, faithfulness, and the very being of God in and of himself. The speaker calls to mind, as Stern says, God’s attributes and has hope.
Why do the sages redirect this verse to refer to Torah? Do they have a problem with the contemplation of God’s goodness and his attributes?
No and they would affirm that reading also. But Lamentations Rabbah is a work in which the sages worked out Israel’s spiritual survival in the face of God’s absence and the tragedies he allowed to befall Israel (after the first and second Jewish revolts, 66-70 CE and 132-136 CE).
The sages determined that the most practical, meaningful, and enduring practice for Israel would be to study Torah and find in it all the meaning in the universe.
THE POWER OF THE STORY
If the sages had simply made an analogy between Deuteronomy 4:44 and Lamentations 3:21, so that the “this” was shown to mean “Torah,” would it have the same power?
Well, I think it would still be a powerful idea. But the narrative does two things that the simple analogy doesn’t:
(1) It evokes an emotional identification and
(2) It adds aspects to the story that go beyond the simple verse.
As far as emotional identification, this is already a feature of the biblical work known as Lamentations. It is an emotional book. Lamentations 3 contains ideas that some people think of as foreign to faith:
–It accuses God of wounding his people.
–It allows the suggestion that faith in God can be lost . . . legitimately!
–It says bluntly that God does not (always) answer prayers.
So the parable in Lamentations Rabbah adds a further dimension of emotional identification. The reader can imagine the situation of this woman who is consoled in her loneliness and the taunting of her neighbors only by reading and rereading the ketubah. The experience of love scorned, of loneliness, of abandonment is universal.
But the parable does more. It adds further ideas.
How shocking is the suggestion that Israel’s faith is not simply expected or required, but meritorious? How shocking is the idea that God will, rather than simply expecting faith, be surprised by the faithfulness of abandoned Israel?
Some will think of a verse here or there in the scriptural tradition in which faith is simply that which is required. They will reject the idea that faith is sometimes and in some ways in spite of God’s actions and ways rather than because of them.
But scriptures like Lamentations 3 are more than a hint in the direction of the merit of faith. Who can keep believing through centuries of pain and suffering with the silence of God the only sound from heaven?
And the temptations to abandon faith and to follow success instead of peculiar obedience are a dimension of the nimshal. Don’t the nations tempt Jews to give up distinctiveness? Don’t too many of the people of Israel throw away that uniqueness to fit in?
But there is a spiritual exercise that will give hope and keep away the tempters. The sages have chosen well in selecting the continual study of Torah, the continual reading of God’s ketubah. It keeps the love alive across the great distance and through the long years of waiting in embarrassed solitude.