D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
The 12-step slogan If God seems further away, who moved? refers to times in our lives when we feel distant from God. Overcome by that feeling of detachment, we might have a tendency to believe it is God who has moved away from us. But this is not the case. God hasn’t gone anywhere. It is instead we who through our thoughts and our actions have moved further away from God.
In this week’s Torah portion Ekev, Moses warns the Israelites about becoming complacent, that it is possible that after settling in Canaan they will grow distant from God and so forget about God and following God’s laws.
Once they are no longer wandering the desert and are enjoying a certain amount of prosperity the Israelites may begin to feel a bit high and mighty and so put God out of their mind. They may come to believe כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּֽה – My own power and the might of my own hand have won wealth for me (Deut. 8:17.)
Their distance from God will be their own choice for if God seems far away, it is surely not God who moved.
This Shabbat we begin reading from the book of Deuteronomy, the last book in the Torah. The beginning of Deuteronomy also coincides with the conclusion of a three-week period of mourning that began on the 17th of Tammuz, a fast marking the day when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans in 69CE. Before this period of mourning comes to an end, we will come together as a community to observe Tisha B’av, the 9th of Av. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the two Temples as well as a number of other tragedies in the history of the Jewish people, including the expulsion from Spain in 1492. We come together to express our grief by chanting from the book of Lamentations (Eicha), a set of dirges that describe Jerusalem under siege and the destruction of the First Temple.
In conjunction with Tisha B’Av, this Shabbat morning we will read a special haftorah, the third haftorah of admonition, marking the Shabbat leading up to Tisha B’Av. The content of this haftorah is linked to the Book of Lamentations in its depiction of the destruction and devastation of Jerusalem. Called Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of Vision, there is an extraordinary link between this week’s Haftorah and Torah portions and the Book of Lamentations itself. That link is found through one word --Eicha-- How? This word is found in all three texts:
אֵיכָ֥ה אֶשָּׂ֖א לְבַדִּ֑י Eicha esa l’vadi --How can I bear the burden alone? (Deut. 1:12)
אֵיכָה֙ הָֽיְתָ֣ה לְזוֹנָ֔ה Eicha haitah l’zonah--Alas, the city has become a harlot (Isaiah 1:21)
אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה yashvah vadad--How does she (Jerusalem) dwell alone? (Lamentations 1:1)
The word eicha isn’t just a question it’s a lament. In this week’s Torah portion Moses asks how it happened that he has to bear the burden of leading the Israelites alone. In the haftorah, the prophet Isaiah laments that the faithful city of Jerusalem, a city filled with justice, has become a harlot. In the book of Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah wails how Jerusalem, a city once occupied with Jews, is now desolate and empty of its former inhabitants.
As this period of mourning in Jewish history comes to a close, our country is entering its own period of mourning and wailing-- yet another period of pain and sadness. Eicha, how did this happen God? How did it happen that we have yet again witnessed such levels of violence and hatred in our own country, this time in the cities of El Paso and Dayton? We cry out, Eicha God -- How God? as the wailing continues and the cries pierce our ears.
As with previous tragedies, this week’s sorrow brings with it another question, another lament. Matai God, when God, when will it stop? While the answer to this question continues to allude us, let us all make sure we work for the day when our cries are no longer in vain.