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Eichah

Interestingly, Shabbat Parshat Devarim was followed by Tisha B’Av immediately this past week. It’s interesting because on Tisha B’Av, Eichah is traditionally read, and in Parshat Devarim, Moshe, after remarking how God is fulfilling the promise to the Patriarchs, giving the Israelites the Land of Canaan and making them numerous, asks, “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deut. 1:12). The traditional commentators say that Moshe’s lament refers to his inability to serve as sole arbiter for the people. Moshe then recounts how he responded to this conundrum (Devarim is the beginning of Moshe’s recounting of the Israelite’s wanderings in the desert) by having the tribes appoint wise judges to judge impartially and fairly over the tribes. That is interesting because the word “How” is “Eichah.” Eichah, aka Lamentations, is Yirmiyahu’s lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and exile of the Judeans in 587 BCE. The book opens with the line, “Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow; The princess among states is become a thrall.” That first word, “Alas”, is more literally translated “how.” Yirmiyahu cannot comprehend that Jerusalem, God’s Eternal Abode, the Holy City, could be destroyed. This is despite the fact that he had been warning the Israelites for years that, as a result of their perversions of justice, God would bring about their destruction. Logically, it made sense, but emotionally, it did not (Credit to Scott Kahn of “The Orthodox Conundrum” podcast for this idea). Interestingly, both Moshe and Yirmiyahu’s laments relate to justice. We can see the connection between the word “eichah” and justice also in the book of Yeshayahu. He, too, warns of Jerusalem’s downfall into injustice: “Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice where righteousness dwelt—but now murderers” (1:21). Again, alas - “eichah” - more literally translated “how.” Ibn Ezra notes that the Hebrew word for “murderers” is in the causative form, and thus suggests that it refers to judges. This is one comment among many which point to this verse as an accusation against Jerusalem’s justice system. Here, Yeshayahu cannot believe what Jerusalem has become. There was a certain mystique to Jerusalem, as proven by his phrasing “ . . . the faithful city that was filled with justice where righteousness dwelt.” Jerusalem didn’t simply have a good justice system, it was the very dwelling place of righteousness. This was no doubt associated with the Davidic covenant, the promise that God would sustain David’s line as Kings of Israel forever. Jerusalem was David’s city and the site of the Temple, and thus very much wrapped up in the Davidic covenant. No wonder Yirmiyahu could not believe his eyes; for all the doom he was prophesying, there was something in him that still believed Jerusalem was eternal, just like Yeshayahu thought Jerusalem’s righteousness was eternal. Interestingly, Moshe’s use of the word in question was also prefaced by references to one of God’s eternal covenants, the one with the Patriarchs. Here are verses 9, 10, and 11: “See, I place the land at your disposal. Go, take possession of the land that יהוה swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them. Your God יהוה has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky.—May יהוה, the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as promised.” The Akeidat Yitzchak cites a Misrash which points out the connection between these three verses, creating a chronology of decay: Moshe laments even as the Israelites stand on the verge of entering the Promised Land, such an elevated spiritual state. Yeshayahu laments as he sees Jerusalem’s justice system failing. Yirmiyahu laments in the face of what appears to be complete and utter destruction. Before I pose a question that arises from all of these connections, I will point out one more connection. Moshe, Yeshahayu, and Yirmiyahu are all men condemned to watch the history of their people unfold from the outside. Moshe leads the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert, and yet is forbidden from entering the promised land (hence the big parting speeches on the edge of the Land that constitute Sefer Devarim). Yeshayahu is an outsider in Judean society - a crazy man in the street telling the people their fate to no avail. Yirmiyahu is also such an outsider, and additionally must watch as Judea is overthrown by Babylonia, destroyed, and exiled. He himself, though, is never exiled. All these men exhort the Israelites to follow the good path - Moshe in Devarim instructs the people not to stray from God’s law else their days not be lengthened in the Land, Yeshayahu instructs the people to amend their ways before it is too late, Yirmiyahu tells them that the destruction is upon them, and they better change their ways if they want any hope of avoiding it. All of these men, though, understand in some respect that their task is futile. Moshe: Devarim 29:30. Yeshayahu: Chapter 6. Yirmiyahu: Gets Judah to repent under the righteous King Josiah, but the sins of King Manasseh must be repaid and the people will be destroyed nevertheless. Nevertheless, all of these men lament when the Israelites inevitably do suffer. Now, here is my question: It is clear that Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu lament for the degradation and destruction of Jerusalem. What, though, does Moshe’s lament have anything to do with the national fate. It would seem that this seemingly selfless individuals is concerned most with his own stress levels and work-life balance. I just don’t have the time for all of these court cases, he seems to be saying. Another way of looking at this, though, is that Moshe foresees the road to Israel’s exile. Rashi cites a Midrash which explains that in verse 1:12, Moshe is referring to, among other legal issues, a phenomenon in which Israelites, when they realized they were about to lose a court case, would delay the ruling by exclaiming that they had more witnesses and evidence to offer. Perhaps in his role as adjudicator Moshe saw unjust tendencies in the Israelites. Perhaps he foresaw the road of destruction this would lead them down. Perhaps not - its could’ve simply been the injustice itself that was causing the lament. Or perhaps Moshe is recognizing his own errors. He realizes that he, as a judge, is not up to the tremendous task of judging the Israelites’ disputes. He sees that his own inability is allowing injustice to exist, and he laments this fact. He questions how God could create a situation, by increasing the Israelites’ numbers so dramatically, in which injustice would be inevitable (because Moshe would not be able to judge all of their cases with sufficient attentiveness). Moshe settles this conundrum by creating a justice system in which the people appoint wise men over themselves as judges. Some of the responsibility is taken off of his shoulders. But does he enjoy this? Did he enjoy the transferring of the crown, if you will, the creation of an Israel which can exist inside the Land, without him? Did Yirmiyahu enjoy taking off the cattle yolk, did he enjoy the lifting of his burden when God’s word was finally brought to fruition and he had to prophesy doom no longer? Did they enjoy being no longer necessary? I suspect no. Perhaps this is a factor in the lament as well. They are so removed. Just look at Moshe’s word’s: “May יהוה, the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousandfold . . .” He refers to the Israelites as “you”, not “us.” It is heavy work being a prophet. You are not integrated into the community. It is a heavy burden, seeking justice day and night. There is a certain sadness which comes with witnessing injustice and knowing the destruction which will follow. There is a certain sadness, too, when that destruction eventually comes. On the one hand, it is sadness for the fate of a people, which, despite all their misdoings, you still love. On the other hand, it is sadness for lack of purpose. Their prophesy has been fulfilled, their burden lifted. What now? You’ll notice that none of these men have a lengthy retirement. I don’t think they would have enjoyed it had it been afforded to them.

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