Between the Lines—Devarim

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Lamentations Rabbah 1:1

איכה ישבה שלשה נתנבאו בלשון איכה משה ישעיה וירמיה משה אמר (דברים א׳) איכה אשא לבדי וגו׳ ישעיה אמר (ישעיה א׳) איכה היתה לזונה ירמיה אמר איכה ישבה בדד
א״ר לוי משל למטרונה שהיו לה שלשה שושבינין אחד ראה אותה בשלותה ואחד ראה אותה בפחזותה ואחד ראה אותה בניוולה כך משה ראה את ישראל בכבודם ושלותם ואמר איכה אשא לבדי טרחכם ישעיה ראה אותם בפחזותם ואמר איכה היתה לזונה ירמיה ראה אותם בניוולם ואמר איכה ישבה


“How (eikhah) lonely sits the city, [once great with people]!” (Lam. 1:1). Three uttered prophecies using the word eikhah: Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Moses said, “How can I bear unaided [the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering]!” (Deut. 1:12). Isaiah said, “How she has become a harlot, [the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt—but now murderers]!” (Isa. 1:21). Jeremiah said, “How lonely sits the city . . . !”

R. Levi taught: This may be likened to a matron who had three suitors: one beheld her in her complacency, a second beheld her in her infidelity, and the third beheld her in her disgrace. Thus, Moses beheld Israel in their glory but also their complacency and exclaimed, “How can I bear unaided [the trouble of you . . . ]!” Isaiah beheld them in their infidelity and exclaimed, “How she has become a harlot, [the faithful city that was filled with justice . . . ]!” Jeremiah beheld them in their disgrace and exclaimed, “How lonely sits the city . . . !”

It may sound strange that I look forward every summer to observing Tish’ah Be’Av. The saddest day on the Hebrew calendar is also the one I have found most consistently meaningful since my teenage years. The psychological mix of introspection, catharsis, and yearning for redemption combine with the physical effects of fasting for 25 hours to produce an experience that challenges my personal comfort zone about Judaism and Jewish history. That experience of emotional and bodily discomfort deeply resonates with the message of the midrash above.

In the first part of this rabbinic text, we find a comparison of three verses in which the term eikhah (how/alas) appears. Used to frame a question and as an exclamation, this term provides a lens for comparing three prophets’ heartfelt speeches: Moses’s warning to the Israelites not to test God (in this week’s Torah portion), Isaiah’s rebuke of social injustices and threats of impending doom, and Jeremiah’s lamentations for a destroyed Jerusalem and its murdered or exiled inhabitants. Reading the quoted verses together allows us to collapse biblical history into a short progression from moral deafness and blindness to disaster.

While I reject how this text blames its female victim, it behooves us to examine the way that this midrash identifies complacency as a culprit of social decline. Rabbi Levi’s parable compares ancient Israel to a woman whose arrogance brought her to disloyalty and dishonor. That allegorical reading makes our ancestors’ collective catastrophe into a personal tragedy that each of us can internalize more easily. The challenge remains, however, for us individually to confront our own shortcomings before it is too late to make amends.

Of course, this is exactly the kind of spiritual homework we need to be doing in advance of the High Holy Days. For the 50 days between Tish’ah Be’Av and Rosh Hashanah, we owe it to God, our communities, our families, and ourselves to engage in serious cheshbon ha-nefesh, a thorough personal accounting of our deeds, both our successes and our failures. Not doing so amounts to self-satisfaction and a betrayal of our integrity. Let us choose life and self-improvement instead.