As Tisha B’Av is upon us, we reflect on the unique and jarring one-word question: “Eichah”, simply, “How?” How could both Temples be destroyed? How could we not see the signs? How could the Jewish people continue sinning? These, and more unfathomable tragic realities are all revisited this week. But in truth, Yirmiyahu is not the only one to use this word when he wrote Eichah, Lamentations. In fact, it comes up two other times. Not so-coincidentally, we will also be reciting both of them this Shabbos.
As Moshe recalls the episode of setting up a court system in the beginning of tomorrow’s Parsha, he says “Eichah Esah Levadi?”, “How can I carry them (the Jewish people) alone (1:12)?” Next, for the Haftara, we’ll read the beginning of Prophet Yishayahu’s rebuke of the Jewish people, where he says “Eichah Haytah Lezonah?”, “How could she (Yerushalayim) become a harlot(1:21)?” The Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 1:1) says that Moshe said his “how?” at a time of honor and tranquility for the Jewish people. Yeshayahu said his “how?” when the Jewish people were being reckless. And Yirmiyahu said his “how?” in reference to their disgracefulness. But one of these is not like the other. For Yishayahu, who saw them acting reckless, and Yirmiyahu, who saw them acting disgracefully, then we can ask “how?”. But it would seem like Moshe’s “how?” is somewhat misplaced- during a time of honor for the Jewish people?
The key may lie in the second descriptor of the Moshe’s times- “tranquility”. Some explain that the issue Moshe addressed was not simply that he couldn’t be a judge for everyone. Rather, his question was “How can I be the only one?” ‘How could it be that I’m the only one interested in helping other people with their problems?’ It was a time of glory for the Jewish people after having just left Egypt in miraculous ways, and yet, no one wanted to pitch in. As we unfortunately know too well, oftentimes, the “glory” is what leads to the “tranquility”. Or, as we might say today, ‘apathy’ or ‘complacency’. Once we have everything we need, we stop looking to solve problems- whether they be our own or someone else’s. While the times of the Temple might have also been glorious, they led to a similar “recklessness”, one which was prompted by a sense of complacency, where nothing they could do seemed to matter or be of any consequence. Unfortunately, the only way to combat that problem is to help us appreciate that we actually don’t have everything we need; that “glory” lies in fulfilling future opportunities, not in riding on our past accomplishments. The destruction of the Temple was not just a punishment. It was a reminder that when our comforts lead us to complacency -towards each other and to our values- the only way we learn is to lose those comforts.