By Rabbi Haim Shalom, incoming Rabbi at
Menorah Synagogue, Cheshire Reform Congregation
in the North West of England
Every year on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates the falling of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews, we read the same Parasha and the same Haftarah. The Parasha is always Parashat D’varim, the first Parasha of the book of the same name (D’varim = Deuteronomy), and the Haftarah is always the Haftarah from the very beginning of the book of Isaiah – referred to as
(Vision). It is so called because it starts describing the vision, or prophecy of Isaiah. It is the Haftarah that gives the name to the Shabbat. In his prophecy, Isaiah bemoans the terrible depths to which the people of Judah have sunk. He cries: “
How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers
” (Isaiah 1:21).
This “How” in the original is rendered by the Hebrew word “איכה – Eicha”. This word embodies the link between the Parasha, the Haftarah and Tisha B’av, since on Tisha B’Av, we read the book of Lamentations, or in Hebrew: “איכה” – “Eicha”. The book starts with the word “How?” and goes on to lament the state of Judah – just as Isaiah does. The word Eicha also appears in Parshat Devarim – it is this word that links together these three texts – Parasha, Haftarah and the book of Lamentations. It is this word which holds the key to understanding our mourning on Tisha B’Av – and I will suggest a different reading of this word may allow us a new understanding of the day.
The term Eicha actually appears 18 times in the Torah. One time, the same written word is actually read not as Eicha, but as Ayeka. The two words both seem to introduce questions, but they could not have more different meanings. Eicha, means “How?” – but when it is used, it is usually exclamatory rather than actually interrogatively understood – i.e. it’s not really a question. When we use Eicha, we are asking “How did this happen to me?” We are bemoaning our luck, our fate. We are self-empathising, or worse, asking for sympathy. When we hear Ayeka, once, in the story of Gan Eden, God is asking us
we are. Of course if we understand that God already knows where we are, we know that this question is not meant literally – where are you? But rather, as the youth of today might put it:
where are you at
? What have you become that you could sin so? Why are you trying to hide? What are you trying to hide? The Ayeka question turns the conversation from self-pity to self-analysis, from sympathy to introspection. It doesn’t belong in the process of mourning.
I think for this reason, our Haftarah is read with a hopeful note at the end.
At the end of the Haftarah, Isaiah prophecies that though the city will be destroyed for our harlotry and infidelity, we will return and,
Zion shall be redeemed with justice
And they that return of her with righteousness
.” (Isaiah 1:27)
Isaiah prophesied our destruction and our return. He did not desire that we should dwell on our loss, but rather – before we had even endured our loss – he was preparing us for the return, the renewal, the rebuilding. We are blessed to live in an age where that return, that rebuilding and that renewal are taking place before our very eyes. It is in our power to stay in mourning, to stay living in self pity and asking for sympathy, or we have the opportunity to ask, not just Eicha, “How did this happen to us?” But also, Ayeka – “Where am I in all of this? What do I need to do to be part of the solution to our problems?” Tisha B’Av this year falls on Shabbat and as such, according to tradition, the fast is moved to the next day – the 10th of Av (this year – Sunday, July 29th). I believe our tradition demands of us that this year – when the fast is actually to be held on the 10th of Av – a day usually marked by a release from the solemnity of the preceding period, this year – we should mix the 9th and 10th of Av and we should make our fast a fast of action. No longer shall we sit and ask, How did this happen to us, rather each of us must ask – Where do I go from here?
May we all find comfort in the rebuilding of Israel. It is a country which needs us so much. It needs us all to hear the prophetic voice of Ayeka – where are we? And we need to answer that call to say – we are here – ready to redeem and rebuild the once faithful city of Jerusalem. Isaiah makes it very clear what we should be doing, he implores us to:
“Learn to do well,
Seek Justice, relieve the oppressed,
Bring judgement for the orphan, plead for the widow.”
The faithless city of Jerusalem has once again forgotten to seek Justice and relieve the oppressed. The most oppressed of our state today are being hounded out of the country when they should be given refuge. We are too fixated on our inward looking Eicha to even hear the call of Ayeka which asks us to look in the mirror and own up to our responsibilities.