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Devarim 5780-2020

“Eichah, The Annual Search for Meaning and Introspection
(updated and revised from Parashat Devarim 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, is always read on the Shabbat that precedes Tisha b’Av, the fast of the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples. This year, the fast will begin on Wednesday evening, July 29th and continue through Thursday night, July 30th.

According to the commentators, there is an allusion to the observance of Tisha b’Av in this week’s parasha. In Deuteronomy 1:12 we encounter the verse: ?אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם וְרִיבְכֶם, Moses asks, “How can I alone, carry your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels?” Unable to bear the responsibility of caring for the People of Israel alone, Moses recommends that the people appoint for themselves men who are wise, understanding and well known, who can serve as leaders of the tribes, to at least partially relieve the burden from him.

Because of the use in this verse of the Hebrew word אֵיכָה–“Eichah” how, and the confluence of the observance of Tisha b’Av, when the above verse is read by the Torah reader on Shabbat, the verse is read with the mournful melody of Lamentations, of Eichah.

The Book of Lamentations, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, is also known in Hebrew as “Eichah,” because of the opening word of the first verse: ? אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד, הָעִיר רַבָּתִי עָם, הָיְתָה כְּאַלְמָנָה “How is it possible,” asks the prophet, “that she, the city of Jerusalem, sits in solitude–the city that was once great with people has become like a widow?”

The Shabbat which precedes Tisha b’Av is known in the Jewish calendar as Shabbat Chazon. “Chazon” which means vision, alludes to the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah that is read as the Haftarah, the prophetic message, paralleling the Shabbat Torah portion. In the first chapter of Isaiah, which is the third and final of the Shalosh d’Puranuta, the three Haftarot of calamity, the prophet Isaiah laments the underlying causes of destruction, which he attributes to the lack of sincerity in the Jews’ devotion to G-d.

Once again, in the Book of Isaiah 1:21, we encounter the significant word, “Eichah.” Isaiah cries out: ?אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה, קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה “How is it possible that the faithful city [Jerusalem],has become a harlot?” מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט, צֶדֶק יָלִין בָּהּ, וְעַתָּה מְרַצְּחִים , G-d says, “I filled Jerusalem with justice, righteousness dwelt in her, but now she is filled with murderers.”

It is no coincidence that on the Shabbat preceding Tisha b’Av, the word Eichah is invoked repeatedly, as if it were a refrain or theme of this mournful calendar period.

Eichah?”-asks G-d, “How is it possible? How did this all come about? Why do these resounding tragedies strike the Jewish people again and again?”

The rabbis of the Talmud tell us in Berachot 5a, that when tragedy strikes, יְפַשְׁפֵּשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו, a person should examine his/her deeds, look for what might be the underlying cause of the misfortune. It is this introspection and search that is the precise theme of Tisha b’Av. It’s not so much the fasting, not so much the mourning, it’s really the introspection, the self-evaluation that is essential. It is critical that, in times of crises, the Jewish people examine their deeds, and see what they might have done to deserve the calamities that befall them, so they can learn to do better in the future.

In the book of Genesis, after the story of the creation and after eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve hear the sound of the Al-mighty in the garden as they try to hide among the trees. The Torah in Genesis 3:9 states, וַיִּקְרָא השׁם אֱ־לֹקִים, אֶל הָאָדָם. G-d calls out to the human being: וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, And He says to him: אַיֶּכָּה–“Ah’yeka?” ‘Where are you?” Adam responds, “I heard your voice in the Garden, and I was afraid because I am naked, and I hid.” Obviously, G-d is not asking Adam and Eve where they are. He knows precisely where they are! G-d is asking them, Adam and Eve: “Ah’yeka?” “Where are you existentially? I endowed you with the gift of intelligence, that no other creatures possess. I gave you everything, and forbade just one little tree. How did you allow this to happen?”

The word Ah’yeka is the exact same word, composed with the exact same letters, as the word Eichah. How could this have possibly happened? Eichah and Ahy’eka are the themes of Tisha b’Av. G-d asks the Jews: Where are you? What have you done with your lives? How could this destruction have possibly happened? What can you do to improve yourselves?

By focusing on this message, we can make certain that the fast of the Ninth of Av will indeed be meaningful. If not, we will find that we’ve unfortunately frittered away another great opportunity for self-improvement that G-d has given us–the great gift of Teshuva.

Have a meaningful fast.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, will be observed from Tuesday evening, July 21st, until Wednesday night, July 22nd. It marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha b’Av. The observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Wednesday night, July 29th and continues through Thursday night, July 30, 2020. Have a meaningful fast.

This Shabbat, known as “Shabbat Chazon,” the Sabbath of the Vision (prophecy), is named after the opening word of the Book of Isaiah. The first 27 verses of Isaiah 1 are read as the haftarah (prophetic reading) on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of Av).

Much of the haftarah is recited in the mournful tune of Eichah (Book of Lamentations) that is read on the night of Tisha b’Av. Deuteronomy 1:12 of the Shabbat Torah reading that begins with the word “Eichah,” is also recited to the tune of Eichah. In addition, many synagogues have the custom to sing the “L’cha Dodi” hymn on the Friday night of Shabbat Chazon to the tune of Eli Tzion, a mournful tune sung at the end of Kinot (Tisha b’Av poems) on the morning of Tisha b’Av.