Thursday, August 4, 2011

PARASHAT DEVARIM: THREE LAMENTATIONS/5771/2011


RABBI ABNER WEISS' WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE

PARASHAT DEVARIM

THREE LAMENTATIONS


Behold I have set before you the land. Go in and possess the land that the Lord swore onto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob to give to them and to their seed after them.  And I spoke onto you that time saying:  ‘I am not able to bear you myself alone…How [eikhah] can I myself alone bear your cumbrance [torchakhem], and your burden [masa’akhem] and your strife [rivekhem]?
(Deut. 1:8,9,12)

One of the reasons why Parashat Devarim always precedes the Fast of the Ninth of Av [Tish’ah Be-Av] is Moses’ rebuke of Israel.  His rebuke is, in fact, a lamentation [kinah].  Lamentations are most commonly associated with the word eikhah.  It appears not only in the lament of Moses, but also in two other readings associated with this dismal period in the Jewish calendar. The Sages put it this way:

There were three who prophesized sing the word eikhah, Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. 
Moses said: How [eikhah] can I myself alone bear your cumbrance [torchakhem], and your burden [masa’akhem] and your strife [rivekhem]? (Deut. 1:12).
 Isaiah said: [ Eikhah] How  has the faithful city become a harlot!  She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers (Isaiah1:21).    
      Jeremiah said:[ Eikhah] how does the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow, she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces [how has she] become a tributary! ( Lamentations 1:1). (Eikhah Rabbah 1:1)

What is the connection between these three usages of the word Eikhah? There have been many suggestions, but the most tantalizing is the homily in Yalkut Shim’oni:

[The three-[fold use of the word Eikhah] may be illustrated by a certain woman who had three special friends. One saw her in her tranquil state [be-shalvatah]. Another saw her in her unstable, unsettled condition [be-fachazutah]. The third saw her in her disgraced, humiliated state [be-nivulah].

Thus Moses saw her in her tranquil state, and said: ’ How [eikhah] can I myself alone bear your cumbrance [torchakhem], and your burden [masa’akhem] and your strife [rivekhem]? (Deut. 1:12).

 Isaiah saw her in her unstable, unsettled condition, and said: ‘ [ Eikhah] How  has the faithful city become a harlot!  She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers (Isaiah1:21). 

 Jeremiah saw her in her disgraced, humiliated state, and said: ‘:[ Eikhah] how does the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow, she that was great among the nations, and a princess among the provinces [how has she] become a tributary! ( Lam. 1:1).

The context in which Moses uses the word eikhah sheds light on the first part of Yalkut Shim’oni’s homily.  The exodus from Egypt was complete, the Amalekites had been defeated and the Israelites were ready to enter the Promised Land. This was conveyed by Moses’ words: Behold I have set before you the land. Go in and possess the land that the Lord swore onto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob to give to them and to their seed after them. (Deut. !:8). Moses was lamenting the non-fulfillment of the opportunity of taking possession of the land. Precisely at that time [ba-et ha-hi], when Israel was in a state of unprecedented tranquility, it missed the opportunity of capitalizing on its tranquility.

The nation was not harassed by outside enemies, and its physical needs—food, water and raiment—were well provided for. No distractions disrupted the harmony of nation. The Israelites had a golden opportunity of achieving unity and spiritual growth. But they blew that opportunity. Untroubled by enemies on the outside, they stirred up internal enmity. They quarreled and bickered, and wore Moses down with their pessimism, complaining and bickering.

Great leader though he was, Moses was overwhelmed by the burden. His people were simply not ready for the encounter with their national destiny. His eikhah lament was his broken- hearted response to the collective failure to capitalize on the unprecedented condition of tranquility.

Isaiah’s eikhah lament contrasts radically with Moses’ lament. Whereas Moses laments squandered tranquility, Isaiah laments needless instability. Moses led an undivided Israelite people, who nevertheless fought and quarreled. In Isaiah’s time, the disintegration of the body politic was imminent. Ten of the twelve tribes were about to be lost forever. The prophet foresaw the consequences of the prevailing national restlessness, spiritual betrayal and disharmony. So he bitterly lamented the fragmentation of the nation and the loss of the greater part of its ancestral homeland. This was Isaiah’s eikhah.

The Book of Lamentations is the record of Jeremiah’s lament about the destruction of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, and the exile of the remnants of Judah to Babylon. His eikhah laments the consequences of wasted opportunities and moral and spiritual instability.

Accordingly, the three   eikhas lament Israel’s curious inability to be content with tranquility, to cope adaptively with instability, and the tragic consequences of these flaws in the national character.

A wit once remarked that history does not repeat itself. Only historians do that. I think he was wrong and that Santayana was right: Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

 The condition of the contemporary State of Israel proves his point. Modern Jews cannot bear tranquility. During the rare periods when the threat of outside attack abates, Israelis create internal strife. Secularists attack religious Jews; the religiously observant throw stones and hurl insults at non-practicing Jews; Ashkenazic Jews demonize Sefaradic Jews; the political Right and Left accuse each other of betraying the national ethos; and religious courts delegitimize Jews whose ideology differs from theirs. Tragically, it takes an assault from without to produce Jewish unity within. This is Moses’ lament reincarnated.

But even the semblance of national unity under those circumstances is ephemeral. As in Isaiah’s time, the very threat of national disintegration produced dangerous internal conflicts that atrophied the national spirit.  Today, Right accuses Left of promoting policies that all but assure the acceleration of Israel’s putative demise—and visa versa. Here, too, we hear echoes of Isaiah’s eikhah.

Hopefully, the consequences of the national allergy to tranquility and its inability to manage stress will produce echoes of Jeremiah’s tragic eikhah.

 The primary focus of the midrash in Yalkut Shim’oni is the Jewish collective. But its lessons apply with equal force to us as individuals. Like our forbears in the wilderness and in ancient Israel, we are our own worst enemies. When things are going well we often tend to pick fights. Although they have so much going for them, too many marriages are punctuated by needless bickering. Many productive partnerships are imperiled by imagined slights, mindless power struggles and neurotic infighting.

 Many people are simply stir-crazy. Rejecting the tranquility with which they have been blessed, they adopt self-defeating behaviors, take unnecessary risks and do crazy things to lift them from their imagined ruts. Tragedy often follows, and lives are shattered—the risk takers’ and also the lives of those who have to pick up the pieces—all with a plaintive eikhah on their lips.

When we contemplate these flaws in the human spirit, we have much about which to be depressed. But Jews are not naturally pessimistic. Our national anthem is Hatikvah, The Hope. We have survived as a collective precisely because we have never lost hope. Shabbat Nachamu always follows Shabbat Chazon. Isaiah’s eikhah is followed by his healing words of consolation. It is never too late. Negative tendencies can be changed. Tranquility can be restored even to traumatized families. The Jewish people is capable of renewal. And renewal begins with each and every one of us.

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