Eicha? How? How could this have happened? This is the question that pervades the liturgy of Tisha B’Av - the annual fast commemorating the destruction of the Temples - which we mark this coming Tuesday. It is the first word of the Book of Lamentations which we read on this day, and thus also its Hebrew name, and it occurs three more times in the text. We also hear the word eicha on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, as it appears in both the Torah and Haftarah readings. Eicha asks, how could the Temples in Jerusalem have been destroyed? How could all of these tragedies we commemorate on Tisha B’Av have happened? These questions ring out, but the biblical text gives no conclusive answers.
The Talmud, however, characteristically poses many answers. Not for every tragedy we mark on this day, but for the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. Since the rabbis of the Talmud were historically closer to the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, most of their answers seek to understand eicha, how; God could have allowed this terrible event to happen.
The Talmud Shabbat 119b gives a collection of opinions. Here is a sampling:
Abaye said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because the people desecrated Shabbat in it.
Rav Hamnuna said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they neglected [the education of] school children.
Ulla said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because people had no shame before each other.
Rav Amram son of Rabbi Shimon bar Abba said that Rabbi Shimon bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Hanina: Jerusalem was destroyed only because the people did not rebuke one another.
Rabbi Yehudah said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they disparaged the Torah scholars in it.
Rava said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because there were no more trustworthy people there.
All of these rabbis lived well after the destruction of the Temple, so their answers are probably less historically accurate and more statements of their values. But the fact that they cite these values, or lack thereof, to explain the greatest tragedy of their time makes us stop and think about how these values play out in our communities, and our Jerusalem, of today.
Every year Tisha B’Av and its mourning practices feel somewhat out of place. We focus on the ancient destroyed Jerusalem instead of the modern rebuilt Jerusalem. Of course there are those who point out that since the Temple is not rebuilt, we still can’t consider Jerusalem rebuilt today. But anyone who has been to the city, or seen pictures of it, can’t help but feel this dissonance. Tisha B’Av, like all Jewish holidays, is not simply about its practices but its meaning. And this is the central question of the day: Eicha? How do we find meaning in this ancient destruction?
I think we find this meaning by focusing back on the values that the rabbis found deficient at the time of the Temple: keeping Shabbat, educating the next generation, living with respect and integrity, and having a civil discourse about even the most contentious of issues. If we look at the headlines coming out of Jerusalem today, we find that we are still deficient in all of these values. There is more work to be done to rebuild the city morally and spiritually. Observing Tisha B’Av ought to focus us on these values, and remind us of the terrible consequences our ancestors endured for neglecting them.
Commentaries notice that the word eicha is spelled in Hebrew with the letters aleph, yod, kaf, heh. This is the same spelling of another word, though punctuated differently, that is the first question that God asks human beings. After Adam and Eve eat the fruit in the Garden of Eden and hide, God calls to them: Eyeka, Where are you? Eyeka is spelled exactly like eicha, just with different vowels. When we hear the word eicha repeated on Tisha B’Av, we are not only crying out for answers, for insight into how these many tragedies could have happened to our people, but we also hear God’s question coming right back to us. Eyeka, where are you? What are you going to do to repair the brokenness that still exists in the world? How are you going to help? Beginning with refocusing on our basic Jewish values is the perfect place to start.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.