Content warning: sexual assault
When I first read Eicha, I read it with my entire body. I was sitting at a bus stop in the Castro district of San Francisco on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish holiday when Eicha, or the Book of Lamentations, is traditionally read. I was hoping to attend a communal reading but got there late, and was too embarrassed to walk through the blackened doors of the gallery and draw attention to myself. I decided to turn back around and go home, but do my own reading while I waited for the bus, just to see what it was all about.
Within the first few lines, I was already welling up with tears. I could barely hear the shouts and laughter of bar hoppers around me. I was in a completely different space, fully absorbed in the text. It hit me in places I didn’t know I had pain. Tisha B’Av may mark the day the walls of the Temple came down, but for me, a whole new part of Judaism was opening up.
Tisha B’Av, literally the ninth of the month of Av, is a day of fasting and communal mourning for the Jewish people. It is when we commemorate a whole slew of tragedies that have happened throughout history around this time of year: Centrally, it marks the destruction of both of the Temples in Jerusalem, but it also marks more contemporary events such as the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the approval of the “final solution” in Germany, and the mass deportations of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto.
To commemorate this all, the community fasts for 25 hours and reads Megillat Eicha, which documents not so much the events following the destruction of the First Temple, but the state of mind of the Jews in the aftermath. It is beautiful in its poetic honesty of the experience of grief in the face of trauma. The name “Eicha” itself means “how?” in the most existential way possible — a question you turn and ask the heavens because you’ve given up faith that there’s an answer on earth.
I began to cling especially hard to the book of Eicha two summers ago, when our time of communal mourning turned to deeply personal mourning, when my life fell into pieces after a messy and confusing string of events that I would come to understand as sexual assault.
Recovery has been an all-consuming battle. I lost myself in the unrelenting urge to understand what had happened. But in this seemingly endless period of personal grief, I found comfort in returning to Eicha again and again. Eicha has many readings — political, historical, even environmental — but one I don’t see discussed much, though equally valid, is the reading through the eyes of a sexual assault survivor.
The invasion of Jerusalem and subsequent destruction of the Temple was above all else a massive boundary violation: a sudden and violent shift in the reality of the world. The walls came down and suddenly everything was irreversibly different. This kind of tragedy is one that survivors know very well and carry in their bodies. By using the text as an entryway to understanding that experience, I believe everyone can learn how to better empathize with survivors, as well as think of how we can all rebuild after our own walls have come down.
Book 1: Jerusalem as a disgraced woman
“Bitterly she weeps in the night, Her cheek wet with tears. There is none to comfort her Of all her friends. All her allies have betrayed her; They have become her foes…she is become a mockery. All who admired her despise her, For they have seen her disgraced; And she can only sigh And shrink back. Her uncleanness clings to her skirts.” (Lam 1:2, 1:8-9)
The first image in Eicha is of the city of Jerusalem personified as a disgraced and abandoned woman. “There is none to comfort her” and “her uncleanliness clings to her skirts” stick out to me especially. It is easy for me to see myself in this imagery, as a disgraced and abandoned woman, but in a way we are all her. The desolate woman is the first imagery we are given to put ourselves in context of the deep ancestral trauma we are called to remember. I find comfort in the idea that someone so holy can be enduring the same pain, and that even in her state, especially in her state, she is worth mourning, still worthy of love. Jerusalem is, as I am.
It’s a lonely ordeal to process a sexual assault. Feelings of shame and isolation, as well of fear of not being believed, can make it hard to reach out and get help. Which is a shame, because feeling seen and heard is often the most helpful and validating antidote to grief. Even if you’ve had a strong support system (as I have), there is very little object permanence when it comes to feeling seen as a sexual assault survivor.
The text might say “there is none to comfort her,” but any time we read the text, we hear her in her darkness. We are there with her. I think of every sexual assault survivor sitting completely alone throughout history reading this, going back to Jerusalem, the house of our Holy of Holies, and sitting in the darkness with me. On Tisha B’Av, we all sit in that darkness and weep with her.
Book 3: The ravaged prophet yelling at an apathetic God
“He has made me dwell in darkness, Like those long dead. He has walled me in and I cannot break out; He has weighed me down with chains. And when I cry and plead, He shuts out my prayer; He has walled in my ways with hewn blocks, He has made my paths a maze. He is a lurking bear to me, A lion in hiding; He scattered thorns on my ways, He caused me to spread my legs apart, and made me desolate.” (Lam 3:6-11)
I have revisited this particular passage so many times. Why does this feel so cathartic to read? Sometimes in our processing we can’t quite explain it, but it helps to hear someone else’s words try. There is no better way to describe the all-consuming darkness than with the metaphor of a prophet abandoned by God.
The prophet’s job is to channel the unknowable chaotic energy of the divine through the body of a human. This prophet has just seen the Holy of Holies — the resting place of God on earth — destroyed by an invading army, and now God is silent. A central part of who he is has suddenly been severed off, and even turned adversarial. God is both the enemy and the part of him that is missing. It perfectly resembles the way sexual assault takes you over, mentally and physically, while also leaving you empty. It encapsulates the suffocating feeling of suddenly being overpowered and cut off by someone you love, who you had no choice but to trust.
Until very recently, I struggled to decide if my experience qualified as sexual assault. There was a lot of ambiguity and confusion that made me feel like an imposter taking on that label, as many others’ experiences are much worse. Unfortunately, my hesitation caused me a lot more suffering. These words gave me a location from which I could begin to move forward. They perfectly explained what I was feeling: confused, afraid, desperate to reach someone who no longer regarded me as alive. The words helped me remember that, no matter what I wanted to call it, my feelings were real.
Book 5: The power of the collective cry of the community
“Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old! For truly, You have rejected us, Bitterly raged against us. Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!” (Lam 5:21-22)
The last piece I find so helpful comes at the very end. I find this the most empowering part of the entire book. It is the cry of despair that was missing in the earlier sections. The reason this part is so powerful is that it uses the “we” voice. There is no power like the power of “we” in Judaism. The confessional liturgy of the High Holidays also uses this voice (we have sinned, we have no good deeds, etc.). It is only together that we can face the gravity of our sins; we don’t just confess to our own, but to the ones of those around us. When a sexual assault happens within a community, the whole community suffers, even if just the victim feels the physical burden.
Sexual assault survivors are often egregiously treated by sociey. They are either forced to deal with their grief in complete silence, or face rejection and ridicule for speaking up. To validate their experience would be to admit some unpleasant truths about a community that they’d rather ignore. Often one person’s pain is seen as disposable compared to the image of the community. However, on Tisha B’Av, we see that the grief of a sexual assault survivor is all of our grief. And in our pain we see that we all bear responsibility when a tragedy like this happens in our community.
The last word in Eicha is “kedem,” which here means old. However, it also means “to advance.” When we call out to God to turn us back, we are also asking to move forward. Eicha spends a lot of time detailing all of the sins of the people of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the Temple, and one may wonder, why would we want to go back to that? This is a cry for us to “return” to something better.
I hope we take this Tisha B’Av as an opportunity to see and rally around our survivors. A time to ask ourselves “how?” in order to create a world where these things don’t keep happening.