Constant Vigilence

Devarim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Aug 13, 2005 / 5765

The Ninth of Av or Tish’ah Be’av occurs this coming Sunday. After Yom Kippur, this commemoration is the most significant fast day of the Jewish year. We remember not only the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, but also many tragedies which befell the Jewish people over the course of our history. In addition to fasting, mournful liturgy is interwoven into the observance of the day. Most importantly, we read the Book of Lamentations. This tearful, moving, and graphic text describing the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE is attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. The opening word of this scroll captures its essence — aikha — how. The word connotes a sense of radical consternation and disorientation. Just how could God obliterate the city that stands at the heart and soul of the Israelite nation? Even with the severity of Israelite transgression, isn’t God full of compassion and mercy? How could such destruction and suffering befall a people?

Rabbi Shmuel Avidor Hacohen (z”l), one of Israel’s greatest rabbis, who was a member of the Israeli rabbinate, became popular for a Parashat Hashavua’ program on Israeli television, and taught at Machon Schechter, sheds light on our leitwort (key word), aikha. In his commentary in Hebrew, Likrat Shabbat, Toward Shabbat, Avidor Hacohen points out how the Shabbat preceding Tish’ah Be’av, we readParashat D’varim containing the verse, “how (aikha) can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering?” (Deuteronomy 1:12). Aikha similarly appears in the haftarah for this Shabbat known as Hazon Yeshayahu, the Vision of Isaiah, “how (aikha) she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice” (Isaiah 1:21) as well as at the beginning of Jeremiah’s Lamentations, “How (aikha) lonely sits the city.”(Lamentations 1:1). These three verses are brilliantly woven together in a rabbinic midrash: “it is similar to a matron who had three suitors. One who saw her in her calm; another who saw her in her recklessness; and another who witnessed her degradation. So too were the Israelites. Moses saw them in a period of calm and they were still intransigent. Isaiah witnessed their untoward behavior. And Jeremiah witnessed their destruction.”

Avidor Hacohen argues that destruction and degradation do not simply happen in one day — as devastating as Tish’ah Be’av is to the Jewish people. The seeds of such destruction are planted long before the ultimate punishment. Even in the desert, when all of their needs were attended to, the Israelites strayed from Torah. Perhaps, it was precisely the fact that they were cared for that led them to take this state of affairs for granted. Abundance of blessings led them to ethical and spiritual decline. Isaiah sees the further downfall of the people as they pursue idolatry and licentiousness. Finally, Jeremiah witnesses the destruction and subsequent expulsion (Likrat Shabbat, 179-180).

Rabbi Shmuel Avidor Hacohen sensitively reminds us of our responsibility to ourselves, to our communities, and to our collective future. Calm and abundance often prove fertile ground for moral and ethical depravity. One must be continually vigilant against the seeds of spiritual descent. Tish’ah Be’av offers us a time to be reflective on the role each of us plays in creating sacred community. Carpe Diem!

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.