This week’s portion, Devarim, always precedes the reading of the book of Lamentations on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Ab, which commemorates of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. As the name indicates, Lamentations consists of mournful descriptions of what happened preceding and during Jerusalem’s downfall, including the gruesome account of its inhabitants’ starvation during the great siege that preceded the temple’s destruction.
The vivid narration of these events is so moving that many readers don’t notice a remarkable structural feature of Lamentations. Four out of five of its chapters are exactly 22 verses long. Chapter 3, by contrast, consists of 66 verses—all of them short and choppy, markedly different in style from the verses of the other chapters. What is more, the speaker is different. In parts of chapters 1 and 2, the speaker is a woman, Daughter Zion (bat tziyon). She is a kind of female embodiment of the Jewish people, a widow weeping bitterly; jeered by her enemies, she has no comforter. By contrast, chapter 3 is spoken by an unidentified man. Who is he?
Age-old tradition holds that Lamentations was written by the prophet Jeremiah. After all, he was alive during and after these sad events; who could be a more likely author of these stirring lines than the great prophet? Thus, the Wisdom of Ben Sira (a Jewish work composed in the early second century BCE) asserts that Lamentations was composed “by the hand of Jeremiah” (Sir 49:6), as do other, slightly later writers. If Jeremiah did indeed compose the whole book, then presumably he had spoken in the name of Daughter Zion in the first two chapters, but in chapter three he dropped the mask and began speaking on his own behalf, “I am the man who has seen affliction…” (Lam 3:1)
Still, some modern commentators have expressed doubts about this attribution. After all, if Jeremiah was the author, why doesn’t the book say so somewhere? Indeed, why do other biblical books, although they speak of Jeremiah in connection with Jerusalem’s fall, stop short of identifying Jeremiah as the author of Lamentations? Some scholars have offered other suggestions for the author of Lamentations: it is the work of an anonymous “frustrated soldier” who survived the siege of Jerusalem, or one of the Temple singers exiled to Babylon; or perhaps a known individual, such as Jehoiachin, Zedekiah, or the high priest Seraiah. None of these proposals seems particularly persuasive; more to the point, they fail to answer the question of why the book suddenly switches its focus from Daughter Zion to this unidentified male “who has known affliction.”
The answer may lie in the word used in the first line of chapter 3, “I am the man who has known affliction.” The word translated as “man” here, gever, has an interesting nuance in biblical Hebrew. It is not generally the opposite of “woman” (that role is sometimes filled by the Hebrew word ish). A gever is associated with physical power; he is a strong man, his strength sometimes associated with youth. Indeed, this the basic meaning of the root g-v-r: thus, gevurah in biblical Hebrew does not mean, as in modern Hebrew, “heroism”; it means “power” or “strength.” A gibbor ḥayil was a mighty warrior. So, in many instances, a gever is implicitly a kind of take-charge person. This seems to be the whole point of biblical verses that say things like, “Happy is the gever who takes his refuge in Him” (Ps 34:9) or Jeremiah’s own, “Accursed is the gever who puts his trust in man and makes mere humans his strength, turning his thoughts away from the Lord;…Blessed is the gever who puts his trust in the Lord and makes the Lord his refuge” (Jer 17:5-6). Being a gever carries with it the temptation of trusting solely in one’s own strength.
The gever who speaks in Lamentations 3 is thus someone who has been chastened; events have taught him the limits of his own power. After all, it is specifically a gever who bears the illusion inherent in his very title; an old man or woman, or even Daughter Zion, would hardly be as fitting to make the overall point of this chapter. The gever, more than anyone, had to learn the lesson of Jerusalem’s downfall. As Chapter 3 goes on to ask: “What should a survivor, a gever, bemoan? His own sins!”