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Parshas Devarim [Chazon] 5771

Eichah: Where Were You?

By Rabbi Zee

This Tuesday is Tishah B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest day of the year on the Jewish calendar. On this day many calamities befell the Jewish people throughout history, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.

On Monday evening, the night of Tishah B’Av, Jews will gather together in synagogues all around the world, and sit on the floor (or on low chairs) like mourners, and recite the entire Book of Eichah (Lamentations). This book, which is part of Tana”ch (the Hebrew Bible), was written by Jeremiah the Prophet as he witnessed the great downfall of the Jewish people with the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and their exile to Babylon.

He begins his lamentation with the word Eichah – which literally means ‘How?’ – “How [did it happen that] she [Jerusalem] sits in solitude! The city that was great with people has become like a widow. The greatest among nations, the princess among provinces, has become a tributary” (Eichah 1:1).

It is interesting to note that we find this exact same word Eichah (spelled in Hebrew alef, yud, chuf, hei) – only with different nekudos (vowels) - at the very beginning of the Book of Genesis. There the Torah tells us that just after Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, “G-d called out to the man and said to him, Ayekah, ‘Where are you?’” (see Genesis 3:9).

In fact, the Zohar (the foundational work of Jewish Mysticism) makes a connection between these two events – the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem – based on the shared Hebrew letters in the words Eichah and Ayekah. It teaches that by asking him Ayekah, ‘Where are you?’ after he sinned, G-d was hinting to Adam that one day in the future the Jewish people would lament the great calamities that befell them with (the same four Hebrew letters in) the word Eichah, ‘How did it happen?’.

What the Zohar is teaching us is that when bad things happen to us as a nation and as individuals, and we start asking G-d and ourselves the inevitable question, Eichah, ‘How could this happen?’, we first need to answer G-d’s question to us, Ayekah, ‘Where were you?’

G-d is saying to us: “You neglected my commandment and ate from the forbidden fruit and now you’re asking how this could have happened that you were driven out of the Garden of Eden?! You committed all kinds of horrendous sins during the First Temple Period and then you ask how could it happen that your Temple was destroyed and you were exiled from the Land of Israel?!”

If we think about it honestly, we will find that the answer to the big question we have when something goes wrong in our own lives – Eichah? How could this have happened? - is often as simple as asking ourselves the other question – Ayekah? Where were you?

Think about it …. A man suffers a heart attack in his 50’s and is now bedridden, and he wonders ‘How’ this could have happened to him. Sometimes the answer is ‘Where were you? What were you thinking when you ate every unhealthy food in sight and the only exercise you ever did was walking from your movie theatre seat to the lobby to buy popcorn?!’

Unfortunately, I get this all the time … a Jewish couple meets with me and laments the fact that their son is about to get married to a non-Jewish girl. I ask them if they sent their son to a good Yeshiva or Jewish Day School (or, at the very least, an afternoon Hebrew School or Sunday School) in which Judaism was taught in an exciting and passionate way. They say no. I ask them if they practiced Shabbat and other Jewish rituals in their home – in a consistent manner - and made Judaism come alive for their son. They say no. At this point, I want to say to them, “You are asking how this could have happened that your son is marrying out of the faith! Where were you all those years when he was growing up and you never bothered to impress upon him the incredible beauty and depth of Judaism in a serious way? And then you expect him to only marry Jewish? What were you thinking?”

Or how about a couple that is married for twenty years and then the relationship falls apart and they are lamenting the fact that their kids are suffering from the effects of the divorce and they are asking themselves how all this could have happened? Sometimes the answer is: “Where were you early on in the marriage when you knew things were getting sour between you, and you neglected to take care of them while they were still manageable?”

I could go on and on. The main point – and this is something we need to think about during these sad days in our people’s history – is that we need to start taking responsibility for the things that happen to us and not to always blame G-d for them. This way, we will avoid having to ask the question Eichah in the future.

May this year be the last year of mourning on Tishah B’Av, as we eagerly await the end of all tragedies and suffering with the coming of the Messiah speedily and in our day.

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