“Three prophesied with the term eicha: Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Moses said: “Eicha–how– can I bear alone…” (Deuteronomy 1:12). Isaiah said: “Eicha–how– did the faithful city become a harlot?” (Isaiah 1:21). Jeremiah said: “Eicha–how– does the greatly crowded city sit alone?” Rabbi Levi said: This is analogous to a noblewoman who had three friends. One saw her in her tranquility, one saw her in her degeneracy, and one saw her in her disgrace. So, Moses saw them in their glory and their tranquility and said: “Eicha–how–can I bear alone your troubles?” Isaiah saw them in their degeneracy and said: “Eicha–how– did the faithful city become a harlot?” Jeremiah saw them in their disgrace and said: “Eicha–how– does the greatly crowded city sit alone?” –Eicha Rabba (1:1)
While Isaiah’s Eicha lamenting the moral collapse of Jerusalem and Jeremiah’s lamentation of its destruction make sense, Moses’s Eicha does not. Is being overwhelmed by the Jews’ complaints and the need for more judges comparable to the other Eicha’s? Does it really make sense to read it on Shabbat Chazon with the same tunes of Eicha?
To properly understand this, we must appreciate the big picture given to us here.
This Midrash here very much captures the scope of the tragedy in Jewish history.
The three kinds of Eicha accompany us throughout our history.
First comes the Eicha of Moses, the collapse of governance, the ability to work together, and the ability to trust each other. Some commentaries tie this Eicha to the Talmud’s statement ( tractate Gitin) “Jerusalem was destroyed because everything insisted on following the strict Torah judgment (“din Torah“). Moses is overwhelmed because everyone comes to him with a quarrel. There was a breakdown of civil society and the ability of Jews to resolve things among themselves. Moses’s Eicha is him throwing his hands up and saying: “these people are not governable.” The collapse of systems of government and institutions is the beginning of the end. “In those days, there was no king in Israel; every person did what is right in their own eyes” (Shoftim 1).
This Eicha is one that affects us in every generation. While a plurality of opinions is essential for a free-thinking and functioning society, a “my way or the highway” approach undermines a society’s ability to govern itself. This is not a remote lesson of the past. It is a lesson that applies to our relationships, families, non-profits, synagogues, communal institutions, and the Jewish state. How many times have we all heard of an amazing initiative that fell through because of disagreements? How many Israeli governments fell because of minor disagreements that could have been overcome? How many times could we have combatted antisemitism more effectively if we were not busy assigning it to the right, left, up, down, young, old, rather than just tackling it head-on? Eicha is a question that must be asked yet never has an answer.
Then comes the Eicha of moral decay.
“How has she descended to the depths of immorality?” Jeremiah sees the wine parties, irresponsibility, lack of foresight, overconfidence, materialism, abject immorality, and loss of priorities. How often have we seen the excessive price materialism has taken on our lives and our communities? How many people do we see spending money they don’t have on fancy Passover programs and other things they cannot afford just because of social pressure? How often did we as a community assume that we have more than we actually did? How often–like the zealots who burned the food silos in besieged Jerusalem–did we assume we have more to burn in our infighting than we actually have? How often did we take one another for granted, alienated members of our own community, and assume that we would be able to withstand the fallout?
This Eicha has its personal side too. How often have we succumbed to immediate impulses at the expense of our greater values and goals? How often have we done something that seemed tempting and overwhelming at the moment, but with the glass of time, was counterproductive and perhaps even devastating to our greater goals?
Eicha is a question that must be asked yet will never have an answer. How did we reach that point?
And then, the Eicha of tragedy, Eicha Yashva Badad. The tragedy of loneliness. The Eicha of destruction and the aftermath. An Eicha in which of all loss and hardship, the most difficult part is the loneliness. How many times in our history have we done everything for the friends, neighbors, and the societies we lived in, just to discover there was no one there for us when destruction came? Reading about the mass killings and the pogroms Jews endured in Ukraine and Poland, from Chmelnitzky to Uman, to Petliura, what strikes most about these, is how often they were perpetrated by acquaintances, family friends, neighboring farms, and business associates. Eicha Yashva Badad–loneliness always hurts most. As Eli Weisel famously said: “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Eicha Yashva Badad. How often have we seen young Jews today endure hate, harassment, and intimidation on university campuses and other places that are supposed to provide safety for all, with the absolute silence of faculty and friends? How often have we seen those who will speak out against every injustice on the earth while remaining silent at the image of Jews being beaten on the streets? Eicha Yashva Badad.
How often does this happen in our own personal life?
How often do we feel the pain of that time we were sick and thought someone would be there for us? How often do we feel the pain of loss and not see those who are there at times of joy? How often do we face hardship and challenges without the support that would have made it so much easier?
Yet every coin has two sides to it.
To think of how to survive these three devastating Eicha’s, we must be the ones to seek and reverse those three stages of destruction.
Eicha Esa Levadi–the collapse of governance and civil society is fixed one person at a time. Making sure we take steps to build stronger communities, friendships, institutions, non-profits, and a world we live in that is less quarrelsome, more governable, with more compromise and collaboration, and working with those who disagree with us, are all ways to fix the tragedies of the past.
Eicha Hayta L’Zona- how has she become an indulgent unfaithful one” prioritizing what is important and right in the long term, rather than short term impulses, striving community standards that are affordable for everyone and take into consideration all members of our community, making sure we do not burn silos, bridges, or friendships assuming that we will always have more, avoiding excessive materialism, are all ways in which we rebuild our own character, the character of our community and the character of our nation.
Finally, the Eicha Yashva Badad–how has she become so lonely?” While Judaism puts a great emphasis on changing the world, we must know we cannot change others. As my friend Mr. Schloss OBM, originally from Berlin and then after surviving the Holocaust, from Fairlawn N.J. told me once: “you know if someone dislikes you, there is a lot you can do to change their mind, but if someone hates you, there is nothing you can do about it.” We cannot change others, but we can change our own attitudes. This change begins with alleviating the loneliness of others by being there for others when they need us most. It begins with making sure that those who are often not in the in-circle are made welcome. That no one stands on the sidelines. No sick person unattended to, no newcomer unwelcome, and no one struggling on their own.
By improving on these three fronts of civil and self-governance, of responsibility against materialism, selfishness, and decay, and making sure that no one is left alone, may we be blessed with the reversal of these three Eichas, the arrival of Mashiach, and the rebuilding of the third Temple speedily in our times.