Eichah: Unexpected Concepts

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

The themes of Eichah focus for the most part on the downfall of the Jewish people and the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. The poetic exposition found throughout the verses is one that paints the bleakest of pictures. Often, people tend to only see Eichah as this vehicle of depression and sadness. In many instances, this indeed is the message. There are times, though, when fascinating fundamental concepts emerge through the study of Chazal’s discourses on the above themes. 

A perfect example of a “sad” verse in Eichah is as follows (Eichah 3:44):

“Thou hast covered Thyself with a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through”

The literal understanding of this verse would seem to fit into the overall tragic subjects of Eichah – we were so far removed from God that our own prayers were meaningless. However, thinking into this just a bit presents an interesting problem. It would seem that no matter what, our prayers were closed off from God. How can one posit that our tefilos are “worthless”, no matter the situation? If one is motivated by the correct ideas, should not his tefilah be productive?

There is a fascinating Midrash that tackles this issue (Midrash Rabba Eichah 3:60). The question is raised as to what the meaning of this verse is. R’ Shmuel bar Nachman offers an analogy to help understand this verse. Tefilah, he says, is like a mikveh, whereas teshuva is like the sea. A mikveh is sometimes open and sometimes closed; so too are the gates of tefilah, sometimes open and sometimes closed. On the other hand, the sea is always open, and the gates of teshuva are always open as well. R’ Anan argues with the notion of the gates of tefilah being subject to opening and closing. Instead, he maintains that they are always open. Another opinion is then presented, that of R’ Yossi bar Chalifta. He explains that there are set times (itim) to tefilah. Dovid Hamelech, when praying, would ask to include in his tefilah that his tefilah be accepted as one done during the appropriate time. 

This is an extremely difficult and opaque Midrash to understand. Putting aside the difficulty of accepting the notion of “gates” at face value, one would assume that these gates should always be open to those who approach them with the correct assumptions. In other words, if I have the right comprehension, or kavana, in my tefilah, how are we to understand that my tefilah is “closed off” from God? One might respond by saying that the closure of the gates means that my prayers were not done correctly. If that is so, then how can R’ Anan maintain the gates are always open? Is this the case even when my tefilah is not done appropriately? Then there is the third opinion, that of R’ Yossi bar Chalifta. Is he qualifying the former two positions? What idea is he conveying with these “times” for tefilah?

When approaching a Midrash such as this, it is important to establish certain methodological parameters. This is not a debate within the realm of halacha. It is more of a philosophical discussion, where there is no clear answer; rather there are competing ideas of considerable validity. As we develop the ideas, this will become more apparent.

One concept we see from the outset is the proposed relationship between tefilah and teshuva. The basis for this relationship stems from the analogy to the mikveh and the sea. When we look at these two locales of water, there is one obvious similarity – both are bodies of water! In other words, these is an essential idea they share in common, and differ in a more secondary way. Of course, when looking at teshuva and tefilah, one might not be inclined to think any difference to be “secondary”. What, then, is the critical point they share? It could be that these two actions both have an engagement with God as part of their very definition. When someone involves himself in tefilah, he must be in an active state of recognizing God, offering Him praise and thanks, requesting his personal needs. He is speaking to God, in a sense; this certainly is not a passive mindset. Teshuva as well requires this type of engagement with God. Without recognition of his sin before God – ana Hashem chatasi – it cannot be defined as teshuva. This does not mean other mitzvos are “devoid” of God. With other mitzvos, a person must have an awareness of God, as this is an essential component of any commandment. But the performance is not an engagement with God. This idea is the unique kesher between tefilah and teshuva.

Yet, as we saw above, they diverge at a certain point. With teshuva, the gates are always open. On the other hand, the status of the gates of tefilah are up for debate. What does this mean? If we rely on a literal interpretation of “gates”, we will find ourselves in some serious philosophical hot water. Both tefilah and teshuva involve a perfection of man. Teshuva is the obvious one – a person recognizes his sin, and changes his ways. Tefilah, though, is also an act of perfection. Through man’s recognition that he is an essentially dependent existence, reliant on the Creator for his needs, he concretizes the correct perspective of who he is vis-à-vis God.  This is an important state of mind for man to possess. It could be that the gates are referring to the effectiveness of his tefilah on the self (rather than the physical boundaries a gate presents against the “travelling” prayer). 

Changing the viewpoint to how these actions impact man does not solve all of our problems. The implication of the gates being opened or closed is that there are times when tefilah accomplishes its appointed task, and times it does not. Why can’t the same be said for teshuva? This is the divergence point between the two acts. As long as one is motivated by the correct reasons, entering and completing the process of teshuva as prescribed, it is a certainty that it will affect him positively. On the other hand, if he does not immerse himself appropriately in teshuva, it is not just a failure; it lacks the very definition of teshuva. In other words, one cannot have a defective teshuva experience – either it is teshuva, or it is not. Thus, as long as the conditions are met, he will be impacted in the correct manner. This idea necessarily implies that such a defective state can exist within tefilah. Indeed, it is possible this is the crux of the debate. According to one opinion, it can still be considered tefilah when the defect exists, meaning the positive impact will still be apparent. According to the other opinion, once the defect is present, the tefilah becomes compromised. It is important to stress that both opinions agree that if his motivation to be mispallel is guided by a defect, it will not be defined as tefilah (for example, if he views God as some type of physical deity). 

What exactly is this “defect” that can allow for tefilah to still be expressed? Tefilah is one of the most important activities that man participates in. It drives home the idea of his dependency. And, it is fraught with danger. Tefilah is the ultimate quandary. Man is no better than the dirt and dust, afar v’efer, stripping from him any means of standing before the Creator. Yet, with his tzelem Elokim, he has a right to stand before God. This tension means certain distortions can emerge. One of them stems from this very concept of “conversing” with God. It can lead man to think that he is deserving of this conversation, an expectation that he have an audience with God. It is a sense of self importance that creeps into this tefilah experience. Herein lies the question. On the one hand, one could argue that as long as his motivation was guided by his knowledge that he is a dependent existence, and that such an idea is evident in his tefilah, the presence of this incorrect notion does not uproot the entire impact of the tefilah. It still can be somewhat of a perfection to man. At the same time, one can see how the tefilah experience itself, the act of engagement, is compromised once a sense of self-importance enters into the scene. If this is the case, the tefilah is rendered a failure.  As we said above, there is no clear answer, no right or wrong. However, the sense of the Midrash becomes a little more apparent with the above explanation.

This leads us to the third opinion. It would seem that this opinion is in some way qualifying the prior debate. What do we mean by set times? What does Dovid mean in his request about the timing of his tefilah? It is important to emphasize that the notion here of set times is not referring to shacharis, mincha and maariv. Instead, the concept of itim implies a restriction of sorts. As we mentioned above, tefilah can be a dangerous activity. Another problem that can emerge has to do with tefilah being a constant experience. While the focus of tefilah has been, to this point, on its impact on man, one cannot discount the hope that we merit a response from God. Every time we engage in tefilah, we are asking that God respond to our requests. However, we must understand that this is not a childish wish fulfillment fantasy, that good behavior means God will reward accordingly. What would happen if tefilah were being done on a constant basis? What could potentially emerge, as a friend put so eloquently, is a sense of control over the give-and-take. Man could come to feel like he is personally engaged in the process itself, that somehow he has knowledge of God’s plans. His sense of control leads to an assumption that this phenomenon operates in a manner he can understand. He cannot allow the process to become familiar to him, as this is what produces this distortion. This could be the idea of times as restrictions. Tefilah can never seem to be familiar to the person involved in it. When Dovid asks God that his timing of his tefilah be acceptable, he is not concerned about whether God is “available”. He is recognizing that each time he is involved in tefilah, he cannot know anything of the potential outcome. When tefilah is presented as an unfamiliar experience, it helps dispel man of this incorrect notion. 

This brings us back full circle to Eichah. Yes, the primary messages of Eichah surround the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and the annihilation of the Jewish people. Yet, we must recognize that the path back requires us to be involved in tefilah and teshuva, to possess the correct ideas that can help repair the defective state we currently exist in. This is the message of the Midrash, a theme of Eichah, and it should be in our minds as we first hear the verses being read.