Parashat D'varim

Eichah: Where Are We Now?

We should respond to major historical events and to personal decisions with the question, "Where are we morally?"

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The yearly Torah reading cycle is almost as unpredictable as the Jewish calendar. It's nearly impossible to predict the exact date a Torah portion will be read; sometimes two portions are read together, other times separately, just to make the puzzle even harder. But certain features of the yearly cycle are a constant. For example, on Shabbat before Tisha B'Av [the fast of the ninth of the month of Av] we always read the first Torah portion in D'varim, or Deuteronomy.

I have no way of proving it, but I believe this is no coincidence. On the contrary, I think it's all based on one word found in Deuteronomy 1:12. The verse begins with the word "eicha"--the Hebrew name for the book of Lamentations, which is read on the eve of the fast. In fact, the tradition on this Shabbat is for the Torah reader to depart from the musical cantillation we normally chant, and to sing that one verse in the special melody for Lamentations. When Tisha B'Av begins on a Saturday night, at the conclusion of Shabbat D'varim as it does this year, evoking the mood of the coming fast when we read this verse is especially heartrending.

Verse 1:12 reads: "How can I bear unaided the trouble you cause, the burden and the bickering?" Its plaintive nature evokes the rhetorical nature of the question; there truly is no answer, only a moan, and a cry of despair.sad woman

The word "eichah" occurs only 18 times in the entire Bible. In each instance, it conveys this rhetorical complaint. But the same Hebrew letters, vocalized differently appear one other place, in the book of Genesis. After Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, God asks them, "Ayekah," which means, "Where are you?" The traditional explanation for this question is not that God is asking the location of the first humans. Rather God is asking them, "Where are you morally? Have you grown, have you learned anything?"

Our sages have traditionally looked at the rhetorical question "eichah" and read it with the very real question "ayekah" in mind. Yes, we mourn for the tragedies of our people. Yes, we allow ourselves the luxury of anguish at the calamities that dot our peoples' history. But where are we? What have we learned from that history? To ask the first question and not attempt to answer the second would be an exercise in shallowness. Not only that, it wouldn't be the Jewish thing to do.

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Rabbi James R. Michaels

Rabbi James Michaels is the Director of Pastoral Care at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville, MD.