Eicha is the word most associated with Tisha B’Av. Eicha, from eich, ‘how’, is the name of the scroll of lamentations that we read this evening. Eicha also appears in our parsha, “How can I bear unaided the trouble you cause, the burden and the bickering?” and in our haftarah, “How did this great city become a harlot?” According to Rabbi James R. Michaels, the word eicha appears 18 times in the Bible, each time reflecting a rhetorical complaint, usually about the behavior of the chosen people.
But the same word appears one more time with a different pronunciation. The same letters, different vocalization. This happens in Genesis, in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve have tasted of the fig (not the apple – I can explain why). They are hiding when God comes into the garden seeking to confront them. Yoo-hoo, He says, “Ayeka” – where are you? And Adam says (guilt dripping from every word), we were hiding because we were naked.
What was this, hide and seek? God didn’t know where Adam and Eve were? So, the question “where are you?” is traditionally read as “Where are you morally?” What progress have you made since the last time we met?
Often, this is how CHAZAL read eicha, as ayeka. What state are you in now? Eicha, how did this great city become so degenerate, asks Isaiah? Where are you now, fallen city? Eicha, how shall I carry you, you bickering quarrelsome people, asks Moshe? Where are you in getting your act together? Eicha yashav badad, how did the great city sit abandoned, we read in the scroll of Eicha tonight. Where are your people, your morals?
The question of how or where the Israelites are is the theme of today’s parsha. The people are on the border, physically and metaphysically. In another month they will be crossing the Jordan and entering a totally new phase of their existence. This will entail leaving the cocoon of miraculous existence in the desert and learning what real life is like, first hand. The first step was taken a short while ago according to CHAZAL, after Miriam died and the well that had accompanied the people in the desert disappeared. In Joshua, we read that when the people made their first meal from the produce of Canaan, the manna stopped falling. Miracles out, reality in. Where are you, people, and how are you doing morally?
Moshe is also changing roles. In Devarim he begins to interpret the laws he has given and also tries to absolve himself from mistakes he made or thought he made.
But Moshe is doing more than enlightening. Many of Moshe’s conversations with the people in the past have included rebukes and warnings. As he takes the stage for the last time to enunciate his extended final words, he takes into account that his audience has changed. They are no longer the slaves who exited Egypt but rather the people who have grown up under God’s mantle of protection in the desert. They are entering a new phase with a new leader, Joshua, whom they know and trust, but they need one last thing from their old leader: his blessing. And this is what Moshe is going to give them, with more exhortations, of course.
They don’t know it yet, but the whole system of centralized control is being left behind in the desert. The people are going to be dispersed, they are going to go their own ways, and the answers to the questions of eicha-ayeka – how are you doing and where are you morally – are going to be more difficult to give, and even harder to swallow. (Just read the book of Judges!)
This past week the news-addicted among us have been hit hard. Two multiple shootings in the United States left dozens dead and injured and people around the country, and the world, shocked. Tensions rising in Hong Kong, Kashmir, Iran, China. Everyone wants to be in the news.
But the real depression is in politics. This subject can always evoke a sigh of eicha-ayeka, and never more so than now. Politics is supposed to be the art of personal advancement heavily disguised as efforts to better the country. Not today. Today politics is the game of personal advancement. Period. Here. In the United States. In Britain. Example: A president rescinds regulations to control car emissions. Example: a justice minister wants to undermine the very same Supreme Court that enables this very minister, who is a self-proclaimed homosexual, to serve in the cabinet! Eicha-ayeka. Where is the responsible adult who is willing to put the country first, ahead of personal benefit, even if only for public consumption?
If I wanted to be truly cynical I would say that we are in a race to see who will destroy our world first – mother nature taking revenge for our sins against her, or our politicians taking as much as they can for themselves and their cronies and to hell with the rest of the world.
But I’m not that cynical. I know that good leaders are out there, somewhere. We just have to hope that these leaders, AYEKA, wherever they are hiding, will show themselves in time and save the day (from any party).
One more important note. The fact that we are still around to commemorate Tisha B’Av proves that we survived the destruction of two temples and countless other major disasters throughout three millennia. We survived and we will survive, evidently not because; but more likely despite.