Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Walk Article


Devarim-Tisha B'av-5773

Rabbi David Walk


As a rabbi I'm often asked questions.  Periodically I'm actually asked a question to which I have an answer.  However, very often I don't really have anything significant to respond. Sometimes that's fine, because I can say with sincerity, I'll look it up for you or I'll look into it.   But many times it's the kind of question that has been asked so many times throughout Jewish history; rabbi, why did this or that happen to me or to my family or to our people.  I have no answer.  Perhaps, there is no answer.  So, what do you say when there's nothing to say?  Mary Poppins would declare:  Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, there's no need for dismay.  Just summon up this word, and then you've got a lot to say.  In rabbinic tradition there's another word to use when there's absolutely nothing to say:  eicha.  This word connects our Torah reading to this week's Haftorah and to next week's commemoration of Tisha B'av.  

Moshe used it:  Eicha can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself (Deuteronomy 1:12)?  Isaiah used it:  Eicha has she become a harlot, a faithful city; full of justice, in which righteousness would lodge, but now murderers (Isaiah 1:21).  And Jeremiah used it:  Eicha has the city that was once so populous remained lonely! She has become like a widow (Lamentations 1:1)!  It's usually rendered into English as 'How,' but it could just as easily be translated as O, woe is me, or OMG.  It's what the great prophets said when encountering the imponderable.  The Midrash tries to make these three exclamations a continuum in this famous parable:  Three prophesized using the word 'eicha': Moshe, Isaiah and Jeremiah….'  R. Levi said: This may be compared to a bride who had three attendants. One saw her at peace, one saw her in her wantonness, and one saw her in her disgrace. Thus, Moshe saw Israel in their glory and at peace, Isaiah saw them in their wantonness, Jeremiah saw them in their disgrace (Midrash Raba Lamentations 1:1). 

You may have noticed that the three uses aren't exactly parallel.  Isaiah and Jeremiah exclaim it when observing the desolate state of Jerusalem, which is, of course, the topic of Tisha B'av.  Moshe uses it when he notices his own impossible situation leading these difficult Jews.  The Midrash is hinting at something deeper.  But for now what they have in common is their speechlessness in their despair.  This is a crucial theme for Tisha B'av.  The Rav, (Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik) asks how come there aren't any Slichot (Penitential Prayers) for Tisha B'av, as we have on all other fast days.  He answers that Slichot are an expression of Teshuva (repentance), when we know exactly what to say.  We say that we're sorry, we declare a confession (Ashamnu, we are guilty), and then we have the perfect formula for returning to God, namely the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of God's Compassion.  This inability to express ourselves is a potent motif permeating the early hours of Tisha B'av, and it's carried over into our feeling that we can't pray.  In the book of Lamentations we say:  Though I cry out and plead, God shuts out my prayer (3:8).   There is also the custom to not recite the line in the Reader's Kaddish:  May the prayers and pleas of all Israel be accepted by their Parent in heaven.  Finally we delete from the Uva L'Tziyon (May the Redeemer come to Zion) prayer the lines:  "As for Me, this is My covenant with them," says the Lord. "My spirit and My words that I have placed in your mouth, shall not move from your mouth or from the mouth of your seed from now and to eternity (Isaiah 59:21)."

            This powerlessness of expression on Tisha B'av leads the Rav to conclude that unlike other fast days Tisha B'av is not primarily about Teshuva.  It is mourning and grief, pure and simple.  Our tradition says that the mourner has no mouth.  The Rav notes a shift in emphasis after mid-day, when the custom is to rise from the floor and sit on chairs, then we rise to the challenge of Teshuva and find our voice of prayer.

            This brings us to the saddest aspect of Tisha B'av.  It's not the lack of a building, no matter how magnificent.  It's not the lack of the Temple pomp, no matter how impressive and inspiring.  It's the idea that we've lost our place in God's plan; lost our way on the path to fulfilling our destiny. We don't even have the motivation to pray.  It's like Maimonides says in the Laws of Teshuva:  Your iniquities have made a separation between you and God; we beg but are ignored; we perform mitzvoth but they are discarded, and, "I have no pleasure in you', says the Lord of Hosts, `nor will I accept an offering at your hand (7:7)."  

            We mourn the lack of the holy Temple and grieve over the loss of the Divine Presence, but we are desolate over our sense of distance from and rejection by God.  What caused this abandonment?  Here Reb Ya'akov Meidan of Yeshivat Har Etziyon makes a bold assertion.  The apparent difference between Moshe's use of the term Eicha from that of the other prophets is the key.  The root problem is the inability to connect to the Godly and the holy with the material and the mundane.  Moshe found the Jews so hard to lead because they didn't understand his basic message.  We on earth elevate the profane to the status of sacred.  The water, the food, the camp, and the Temple are all our means to bring this world closer to God and the Torah way.  When the Jews complained about the physical accommodations, he expressed his frustrations in the cry of Eicha!

            Only after we've mourned and lamented this separation from the Godly as reported by Isaiah and Jeremiah, can we begin the Teshuva process.  We repair the rift, and reestablish the lines of communication.  We go back to Moshe's message that all the material stuff of this world is only to help us connect to God.   Then we can use these physical objects around us to start rebuilding the Jerusalem and the world we so dearly desire.   

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