By Rabbi Simcha Zevit
This Shabbat, Shabbat Chazon (Shabbat of Vision), falls just a few days before Tisha B’Av, the holiday commemorating the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.
We read from Parshat Devarim, which begins with Moses reminding the Israelites of many times along their journey when they have disappointed him and been unfaithful to God, hoping they will learn from mistakes made as they now stand by the edge of the Jordan River, finally ready to cross into the land of Canaan.
The corresponding haftarah to be read this Shabbat, from the Book of Isaiah, begins Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the destruction of the Temple. It describes the people as having forsaken justice for violence and righteousness for murder. And then, on Tisha B’Av, we read the Book of Lamentations, with its soulful, mournful trope that evokes the pain and sadness as the words speak in horrific detail of the destruction of Jerusalem and the devastation of its people.
The connection between these three readings is that the powerful word eicha appears in each. Eicha literally means “how,” but that doesn’t quite capture the way it’s used in these texts. Often translated as “alas,” eicha is more of an exclamation than a question. It’s an outcry of disappointment, grief, disbelief. It’s a moan, a wail, perhaps a calling out to God with a rhetorical question, “How or why is this happening?”
In Devarim, Moses recounts the story originally found in the Book of Exodus when, in an exhausted state from resolving disputes among the people all day and night, he called out in frustration, “Eicha essa l’vadi. How can I bear alone the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering?” After this exclamation of frustration, Moses immediately springs into action, appointing leaders who will hear disputes to help him govern and establish justice.
In Isaiah, the prophet cries “Eicha haita l’zonah. Alas! The city has become a harlot; once filled with justice where righteousness dwelt, but now murderers.” Throughout the haftarah, Isaiah’s moans of grief and sorrow are intertwined with prophetic instruction for how to restore hope: “Learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice, aid the wronged.”
And in the Book of Lamentations read on Tisha B’Av, the very first word is eicha, an exclamation of the prophet Jeremiah. “Eicha yashva badad,” he cries. “Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was once great among nations is become like a widow.” The book continues with vivid descriptions of mourning and destruction. The loss is so great that all one can do is weep.
These three examples give us very real human responses to those times in our lives when we are crying out, “Eicha! How did I get here? How could this be? Why has this happened?” or when we simply let out a moan of despair that no words can capture.
Sometimes our response to life’s biggest challenges have us unable to sit with our feelings, needing to move, to act, to do what we can to right the wrong or to change our outer circumstances before we can truly address our emotions. Other times we are able to be with our despair, while also creating a vision of what is possible, moving back and forth between sinking into our heartache, and being inspired by what may yet be.
And then there are those times when we simply need to be in our pain, not to solve it or change it, but to simply allow our awareness of our own deep sorrows and those of the world around us to pierce our hearts wide open and to “pour out your heart like water,” as it states in Lamentations.
This immersion in painful historical memories of our people, and in our own brokenness and that of the world around us, is meant to set us on a path of healing. Out of the darkness we reach for the light. Out of brokenness we can move toward wholeness. Immediately after Tisha b’Av, that’s when we reach for hope and renewal, marked by seven weeks of reading haftarot of comfort and consolation that lead us up to Rosh Hashanah.
The wisdom of the cycle of the Jewish calendar teaches us that we need to be willing to let ourselves feel what hurts about our lives and about the brokenness of the world around us, as we see in Lamentations, to assess our own response to that brokenness and then to create new visions for ourselves and for the world as we see in Isaiah, and ultimately to take action, and to ultimately cross over into a metaphoric new land and a new year, as we see in Devarim.
Rabbi Simcha Zevit serves as rabbi of the Narberth Havurah, and is a chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.