Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
"To Prey or to Pray? The Lessons of Famine"
Tisha B'Av, the annual fast over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and later by the Romans, can be a time to meditate on hunger, and even more so on thirst, coming as it does in the heat of summer. Though fasting is not famine, it brings us one small step closer in body and imagination to what it might have been like during the siege of Jerusalem, or even to what it is like now, when famine strikes the victims and refugees of war.
The book we read on Tisha B'Av, Lamentations or Eikhah, is filled with images of hunger and famine, along with all other kinds of tragedy. One of the truly difficult passages in Eikhah, 4:10, describes cannibalism as a response to famine:
The Tanakh contains other horrifying images of cannibalism during famine. One story (2 Kings 6:26-30) sticks out:
It happened that the king of Israel was crossing over the wall,
You can almost hear the king doing a double-take when he hears the woman's cry. He first taunts her and himself with the emptiness of the threshing floor and wine vat, but then he comes back to the present and begins speaking "to her," inviting her to tell her story. There's a tragi-comic dimension to the story she tells, which makes it seem like a fable. The image of God as described in this vignette, at least according to the king, is of a god who can't save the people. (This image is dispelled when Elisha's prophecy that food will be abundant by tomorrow comes true.) The bottom line in this story is that God's role in the famine is ambiguous.
In Eikhah (1:15), however, God is neither bystander nor redeemer, but rather the direct instigator of the tragedy:
[God] called out over me a feast
The winepress which is empty becomes full and fills the vat, the feast is supplied, by the flesh and blood of the children. Is the point to gross us out? Make the exiles feel horrible, guilty, unredeemed?
A quick review of some images of famine and abundance in the Torah suggests an answer. In the following passage from Leviticus (26:3-38, abridged), there are four kinds of eating relationships that are described in a particular order, from good to bad to worse.
If you will walk in my statutes,
The first paragraph describes what happens when we treat the land well: we are sustained abundantly, eating from her produce. In the second paragraph, which describes the first level of consequence for hurting the land, the eating relationship between human beings and animals is reversed, and our children become prey for the predators. In the third, the relationship between parents and children is undone, and we become our own prey. This is the image of cannibalism. Finally, in the fourth paragraph, the land eats us, instead of us eating from the land, the ultimate reversal of the way things should be.
Theologically, the horror of cannibalism is almost not the point. In Leviticus, the people's downfall comes because they mistreat the land, the source of their food. By doing so, they undo the normal way of eating and living, what we might call derekh eretz, which also means manners, but which means literally "the way of the land". Leviticus continues (26:39-44 abridged):
And the ones left will confess their sin,
In one sense, the point is that no matter how horribly things have gone wrong, they can be reversed. But the foundation of this hope is that God's covenant with the land has not ended. When we restore ourselves to God and to doing justice, we also restore ourselves to the land, righting the relationships of eating and taking that have become disordered and distorted.
This gets to a deeply emotional point about Eikhah: even though it sounds like it's about God punishing us, it's really about us hoping that God still cares enough to punish us. It's not a theology of evil, but a prayer, a belief that awful occurrences prove that God still does care, instead of proving God's indifference. I realized this when I first started doing my translation of Eikhah years ago, because it mirrored what I was going through personally after a breakup, when I hoped that the person I loved would come back if only I fixed this or that thing.* In the same way, Eikhah expresses hope that God will "come back" if only we fix our sins—not because the "punishment" was justified, but because if it wasn't punishment then maybe God has truly stopped caring about us.
What happened in my personal life is that she didn't come back, and I moved on. But we Jews haven't moved on or given up on God. The other side of the reflection on punishment in Eikhah is to hold a mirror up to God in order to show that the punishment went too far, beyond any measure of justice. That's how the image of cannibalism functions later in the book (2:20):
See YHVH and look: Whom did you treat like this?
So, is cannibalism just a theological point? Did it really happen? There are some testimonies I found on the web about cannibalizing children during other famines, but it's hard to tell if they are real. What we know for sure is this: when we use up the land and the planet without concern for future generations of people, or for other animals, plants and ecosystems, we are in effect eating our children.
Let's hope we can turn ourselves around before things get too literal.
This article was first published in "The Jew and the Carrot" blog.
* That's how I first got involved with Eikhah. I was aching so much after that breakup that I could hardly stand it, and I did anything I could to distract myself (even jogging, which is not exactly my thing). But on Tisha B'Av, you're not allowed to be distracted by music or movies, or even by regular Torah study, and exercise on a no-water summer fast isn't a smart idea. So I decided I would translate Lamentations. That led to many years of engagement with the text, and to composing the translation you can now get on neohasid.org.
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006