The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
The Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final act of the drama that is our Torah, opens as Moses convenes the people he led from Egyptian slavery through 40 years in the Wilderness.
He begins his monthlong farewell oration, retelling their saga as they sit on the shores of the Jordan River, poised to cross into the Promised Land with Joshua at the helm.
This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, is always chanted on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, known as Shabbat Hazon. Devarim means “words” and hazon means “vision,” and the visionary words and singular melodies of this week feature an unmistakable, haunting refrain.
“Eicha!” we hear three times this weekend — in the Torah and Haftarah from the prophet Isaiah, and in the actual Book of Eicha, the scroll of Lamentations read on Tisha B’Av. Since this year the commemoration starts on a Saturday evening, “eicha!” echoes throughout Shabbat and directly into the 25-hour fast. Appearing only 18 times in the Bible, it is usually translated “How!” or “Alas!” — a plaintive, guttural cri de coeur of passion, pleading and protest.
“Eicha! How! How could I alone bear your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels,” Moses bemoans, recalling the incessant bickering and dissatisfaction in the desert that necessitated a hierarchy of judges and conflict-resolvers to keep the community in a semblance of order.
“Eicha! Alas! The faithful city has become a harlot! She had been full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, and now murderers!” howls Isaiah in the first flush of his divine vision, forecasting (or commenting upon) the Jews’ betrayal of God and faith that exposed them time and again to oppression and ruin.
“Eicha! Alas! She sits in solitude! The city that was great with people has become like a widow!” laments Jeremiah, the traditional author of the Book of Eicha, as he looks with horror upon the holy city of Jerusalem, laid to utter waste and devastation by Babylonian conquerors.
The 9th of Av (the literal translation of Tisha B’Av) is a day of compounded tragedy.
On it, both great Temples in Jerusalem met their final destruction, in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE. It is considered the day the wilderness generation sealed their fate to die before reaching the Land, as they succumbed to a disastrous lack of self-confidence following the report of the Spies.
The 9th of Av in 1492 CE was the date of the final Jewish expulsion from Spain, and modern traditional commentators note that World War I began on Tisha B’Av in 1914, leading (in a few brief decades) to the unthinkable Shoah.
At the absolute emotional nadir of the Jewish calendar, eicha is an invitation to sink together into a pit of cathartic despair, look starkly into the face of what has befallen the Jews, and call out to the heavens and the earth in a collective chorus of “How?” “Why?” “Alas!”
But the Talmud teaches that the Messiah will be born on the 9th of Av, and the official chanting schedule has it that we can’t stay in a state of communal mourning a week longer after this Shabbat. The tone shifts completely in the days ahead, with the first of the “Seven Haftarot of Consolation,” and climbs higher and more optimistically for seven weeks (analogous to the weeks of Counting the Omer before Shavuot) to the apex of the Days of Awe, with the hope and promise of a New Year.
It’s a wild ride, but it’s also intensely satisfying, and in this cycle we are made achingly aware of the vicissitudes and unpredictability of life, and the deep need for strength to keep moving and growing, no matter what.
The word eicha has long been connected to the earliest chapters of the Book of Genesis (Gen. 3:9), where Adam and Eve hide from God out of shame following their eating of the forbidden fruit, and God calls out “ayeka?” (where are you?).
Same letters as eicha, but here, a cosmic call of the Divine (who our Sages insist always knows exactly where we are) to human beings lost, wayward and wandering in a self-constructed wilderness.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in “God in Search of Man” (1955), addressed the rupture of eicha and the crucial necessity of heeding the call of ayeka — Where are we on our journey through this wilderness? Do we meet life and the world with wonder or indifference? Do we look at the universe with awe and gratitude, or only as means to gratify our endless desires?
Rabbi Heschel offers: “Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”
In other words, we are bidden to turn “alas!” into “aha!” and answer the call of “Where are you?” with “HINENI — I am here. I am present, ready and willing to do the work of tikkun olam and tikkun hanefesh — repair of the world and repair of my soul.”
This Shabbat we hear “eicha!” and we mourn and reflect. May we merit to soon begin the ascent to consolation and joy, as we turn the corner on a new page of history — may it bring us blessing.