This is my 28th consecutive blog post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.
This week’s parasha, Devarim, contains a word that barely merits attention in English translation but, in Hebrew, cries out for interpretation: eicha. Summarizing the forty years of wilderness wanderings, Moses reminds the Israelites of the time (Exodus 18:13-27 ) when they overwhelmed him with their legal disputes. How, he asks, eicha, can I bear the burden of your disputes alone (Deuteronomy 1:12)? The answer is an independent judiciary (vv 16,17). But that’s not my interest today.
Eicha is the first word of the book of Lamentations, known in Hebrew as Megillat Eicha. How, eicha, lonely sits the city that was once full of people (Lamentations 1:1).
When we read parashat Devarim this coming Shabbat, we’re preparing to read Megillat Eicha on Tisha B’av, the day of fasting and mourning for the destruction of the Temple and other Jewish catastrophes that this year falls next Thursday. It’s not surprising that ancient and medieval Jewish commentators connect these two occurrences of the same word.
In Lamentations Through the Centuries (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), our commentary on the reception of this biblical book in art, music, literature, popular culture, liturgy, and even other parts of the Bible, my colleague Paul M. Joyce and I present David Shatz’s discussion of the word eicha as used in Lamentations (‘“From the Depths I Have Called You”: Jewish Reflections on September 11th and Contemporary Terrorism’, in Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th, Broyde, 2011).
The question is not so much a query but an exclamation, a ‘krechts’, a wail, Shatz writes.
An answer would not even be an appropriate response, for Eicha is really an attempt to absorb the depth and scope of one’s loss. One year after the September 11th attack, we still ask ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ But it is a ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ that do not await an answer (224).
Paul Joyce and I concluded that Shatz’s translation of eicha as ‘why?’ and ‘how?’, especially if we hear it in our mind’s ear as a krechts, a Yiddish term meaning ‘wail’, has much to recommend it. It evokes questions that have no answers. It suggests a desire to understand catastrophe that is more psychological-theological than politico-historical. And it conveys a combination of blame attributed and responsibility taken.
All this fits well with Megillat Eicha, Lamentations, a book about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, a twin catastrophe for which Jews traditionally hold others accountable (then the Babylonians, and next time around the Romans), while at the same time blaming themselves (we were disobedient and unfaithful, driving God to punish us). But how does it fit with the occurrence of eicha in this week’s parasha?
The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell speech. He chooses to open not with leaving Egypt, as we might have expected, but rather with Sinai (Horeb). The first time he says ‘I’ referring to himself, not citing God, is in relation to the burden of settling disputes between Israelites (Deuteronomy 1:9). This was the first personal memory Moses chose to record, and it’s the one he makes into a krechts – how, eicha, can I bear the trouble of you, the burden and the bickering alone (v. 12)?
The eicha of Lamentations refers to the destruction of Jerusalem by its enemies, even if its residents bore some responsibility. David Shatz’s ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ refer to 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center by enemies of America. While Israel’s enemies the Amorites and Moabites do feature in Deuteronomy’s opening chapter, Moses does not say eicha about them. He reserves his krechts for the infinitely more destructive and disturbing threat of Israel’s internal strife.
Israel’s location in the Middle East, surrounded by countries that refuse to recognize its right to exist, makes the modern-day state vulnerable. In an area where water is scarce and temperatures are rising, it faces severe climate-related challenges that will only get worse. But the dire threat it’s facing right now is internal and entirely self-constructed.
The coalition government, holders of a slim majority in the last election that, polls show, they’ve long since lost, are poised to pass legislation that will transform Israel from a thriving aspirational democracy (conditional on ending the occupation) to an unstable tyranny. The dreams of its founders are about to be dashed.
Supporters claim it’s the will of the people, but the staggering numbers of demonstrations and demonstrators around the country, and the truly remarkable variety and intensity of the protests, show that’s not true. Israel is burning, and this time it wasn’t the Romans who lit the match and fanned the flames. It’s our own government.
We, the unfortunate citizens of Israel watching the destruction — our army, our economy, our unity, our integrity — unfold in real time, know all too well ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. Will the day come when future generations of Jews look back at this twenty-first century catastrophe and ask themselves, eicha?