Frailty, Thy Name is Woman

When Hamlet denounced his mother for her quick re-marriage, he made a sweeping statement about 50% of the population: “Frailty thy name is woman.” He considered his mother weak-willed and spineless, but for Hamlet this is apparently a condition of all women.  That women were regarded as pitiable and vulnerable was also an important literary conceit for the biblical prophet Jeremiah, prophet of doom and exile. For him frailty is more about compassion than about fickleness.

It was Jeremiah who saw the destruction of the first Temple and shared his torments in the anguished and lyrical five chapters of The Book of Lamentations. If it is hard to imagine such a task, picture someone the afternoon of 9/11, trying to describe the wreckage before him as an act of witness to those who would never see it. Today, our beautiful Jerusalem is once again filled with people and embellished in splendor. As the Sages once said, “Ten measures of beauty were given to the world. Nine were given to Jerusalem.” But we no longer have a centralized place to pray as a community, a place to unburden ourselves and seek atonement or share our deepest spiritual yearnings and longings. What we do have is a first-hand recollection. Each year, we honor Jeremiah’s memory and the way that he tried to personalize this event and its scars.

Throughout the book, Jeremiah uses images of frail and disconsolate women to help readers after his death imagine what it was like to see Jerusalem and its holy Temple in ruins. With the coming approach of Tisha B’Av - the ninth day of Av – when we recite this dirge as a community, we will do a close reading of the first chapter of Lamentations to see how Jeremiah evokes pathos through the image of a fallen woman.

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place. All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress [1:1-3].

Jerusalem is a widow lying in empty streets that were once full, mourning the full life that was once hers. Jerusalem is a queen whose crown has toppled and whose authority has been overturned. Jerusalem is not only a powerless royal; she is now a slave to others who once held her in high regard. Her royalty is gone. Jerusalem is humiliated. She has no friends. She has no rest. Like a woman facing her tormentors, she runs without direction, led into narrow straights that prevent escape.

The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed feasts. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her maidens grieve, and she is in bitter anguish. Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease. The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins. Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe [1:4-5]

Even the streets of Jerusalem grieve. They, too, were once full of spiritual pilgrims, ascending to Jerusalem to gain atonement, to offer thanksgiving, to celebrate the holidays in the presence of community. Now there is no one at her once bustling gates. There is no cause for celebration or feasting. The Temple’s employees – its priests – have nothing to do but sigh. Jerusalem is both a young maiden mourning for a future she will never have and a mother whose children have been violently snatched from her. She will wait in desperation for her children to return from exile. In the ashes of her destroyed city, she realizes they may never return.

All the splendor has departed from the Daughter of Zion. Her princes are like deer that find no pasture; in weakness they have fled before the pursuer. In the days of her affliction and wandering Jerusalem remembers all the treasures that were hers in days of old…Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. All who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns away. Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her [1: 6-9].

Like an old, wrinkled woman in front of a mirror, Zion sees that her splendor is gone – that her enemies made a grab for her treasures and left her in rags. But she has brought much of this upon herself. Like a woman who stains her garments with her own blood, she sits undignified in her filth, not thinking about the consequences of her actions until she can no longer run away from them.

This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit. My children are destitute because the enemy has prevailed. Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her. The Lord has decreed for Jacob that his neighbors become his foes; Jerusalem has become an unclean thing among them [1:16-17].

Enemies mock her. They, too, see her filth and comment on her loss of pride in the world. In pain, she realizes that she has no one. She raises her hands for help and solace, but no one lifts her up. She is left simply to weep alone. Frailty, thy name is woman.

Shabbat Shalom