My beloved teacher, Rabbi Simon Greenberg z”l, once commented that the purpose of Jewish learning was to encourage a person to think authentically in a Jewish way and to see the world through a Jewish prism. This perceptive remark underscores the seeming obsessive use of the word “איכה” (Eicha) that we encounter this Shabbat and on Tisha B’Av. On the face of it, this word seems a bit innocuous. How much spiritual investment can be found in a word meaning “how”?
The word “eichah” shows up as the opening word of the book of Lamentations, which recounts the tragic circumstances of the destruction of the First Temple and Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. Coincidentally (or not), this very same word is to be found in a verse in this week’s parsha and in the special haftarah for this Shabbat, Shabbat Hazon, which fall on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av. (In the Ashkenazi tradition, this liturgical juxtaposition is even more pronounced. The verse in the Torah containing the word “איכה” and much of the haftarah are intoned with the troupe of the book of Eicha so that the significance of this word is not lost.)
Sefer Devarim represents Moshe’s parting message to his people. In it, he hopes to guide them effectively as they enter the land to take responsibility for their own lives. In one memorable sentence he says: “How (Eicha) can I carry by myself your trouble and your burden and the bickering?” (Deut. 1:12) What kind of parting message is this? It was not easy being the leader of this nascent Jewish community – with all the blessings and miracles that the people experienced in the desert, they were never quiet, always troubled and troubling, but still, these words are unsettling. So, what is the point? Before they enter the land, he wants them to know the pitfalls which landed them in trouble in the desert. He wants them to anticipate their future troubles and warn them against falling prey to them once again.
Isaiah’s message in the haftarah deals with something more invidious – the people’s moral and spiritual betrayal of God. Where Moshe only envisioned troubles, Isaiah has experienced them: “How (Eicha) has the faithful city become a harlot. She that was once full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers”. (Isaiah 1:20) Isaiah wants his people to know what they have lost and why. Here we had a city and a people with tremendous potential – a city filled with God’s ideals, utterly and totally betrayed by its very inhabitants. How prophetically exasperating! Isaiah is the epitome of prophet as social critic.
And the book of Lamentations opens with the word “Eicha”: How (Eichah) lonely sits the city, once great with people! She that was great among the nations is become like a widow; the princess among states is become like a slave.” (Lam. 1:1) The city and nation are now in shambles the ultimate price. How tragic!
One midrash tries to tie these three verses together – “Said Rabbi Levi: A parable about the matron who had three companions: one who saw her at ease; one who saw her involved in wrongdoing; and one who suffering the consequences of her wrongdoing. The first refers to Moshe, who saw Israel at ease and in honor; the second, Isaiah saw Israel in social and religious upheaval; and the third, Jeremiah, traditionally the author of Lamentations, saw Israel’s resultant destruction.” (adapted from Eicha Rabba 1:1)
Rabbi Levi associated these thee verses with the behavior which brought about the destruction of the nation and its sacred center, the Temple. One can infer from his teaching that we should take Tisha b’Av not just as a day of commemoration of past tragedy but as a constant reminder that the seeds of such tragedies are planted in the behaviors which prompt them. The three “Eichah”s reminds us that a society’s downfall is often incremental, barely noticeable if one does not pay attention. In these days where so many nations are suffering from inner turmoil, groping for direction, perhaps this reminder should be taken seriously.