Since the Jewish calendar is based on both the lunar and solar cycles, seven leap years containing an extra month must fall within every nineteen year period. This means that the weekly Torah portions do not always occur on exactly the same calendar date each year. Sometimes a particular portion may be close to a certain holiday and sometimes it is farther away. However, by reading two portions on certain Shabbats, the Sages made sure that certain holidays would always be preceded by certain portions. The portion of Devarim is one of these portions and it is always read the Shabbat before the Ninth of Av, a fast day commemorating the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem, as well as many other calamities that occurred throughout Jewish history on this day.
The Ninth of Av is the culmination of a three-week period of national mourning beginning with the Seventeenth of Tamuz, a fast day commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of both Temples. The correlation between the three Torah portions of Mattot, Masei, and Devarim and the three weeks of mourning is intriguing.
As discussed above, Mattot begins with the laws of vows. The Torah teaches us to be careful with our words, for we are obligated to fulfill our vows and promises. It is fascinating to note that the three weeks conclude with Devarim, which literally means “words.” Thus, the entire period of mourning focuses on the spoken word and its importance.
This may be an allusion to the Divine promise made to the patriarchs and the Jewish people. This promise – or more correctly, covenant – is a recurring theme throughout the Torah and the Prophets. Significantly, a covenant, unlike an ordinary vow or promise, is by definition permanent and unbreakable.
God made a series of covenants with the patriarchs that were renewed a number of times with the entire Jewish people during the forty years in the desert and upon the nation entering the Land of Israel. One prophet after the next, speaking in God’s name, emphasized the eternal nature of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, between the people of Israel and the Torah, and between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. As the three weeks are a period of introspection recalling painful memories of a long and at times difficult national history, it is comforting to know that God has vowed to always be with us. He has promised to never entirely abandon us, and He will ultimately redeem the Jewish people and the entire world.
This leads us to the second of the three portions, Masei, where the children of Israel’s forty-two journeys through the desert are summarized. These symbolize both the Jewish people’s journeys throughout history and the private journeys each individual undertakes over a lifetime. As discussed above in Masei,these forty-two journeys relate to the forty-two times the Hebrew root for the word “love” (ahavah) appears in the Torah, teaching us that despite God’s apparent absence, His love always remains with us and is expressed behind the scenes. To undergo pain and endure oppression or exile for no discernable reason, whether as an individual or as part of a nation, is a lonely and bitter experience which can lead to a total loss of faith and hope. When we know that we are not alone and that Jewish history has a purpose and meaning that transcends the apparent oppression and destruction, we are strengthened and our cup of bitterness is somewhat sweetened.
Devarim, the third portion,precedes the climax of the three weeks, the Ninth of Av, the day that represents the collective drama of Jewish history. In this portion, Moses begins to recount the people’s journey, beginning with the exodus from Egypt and ending with the people ready and waiting to enter the Land of Israel. The whole book of Devarim is in essence Moses’ last speech to the people, preparing them for a future without him as their leader. He begins by referring to many of the people’s failings, as does the book of Lamentations, which is read on the Ninth of Av, yet he does so cryptically, employing symbols and allegorical allusions.
Parenthetically, even as Moses rebukes the people, he is also teaching them how to give rebuke: with sensitivity and indirectly, so that the person being rebuked is not immediately put on the defensive. If rebuke is given in a confrontational and harsh manner not only will it be ineffective, it will also be summarily rejected and may even lead to more reprehensible behavior. Of course, every rule has its exceptions. The rebuke in the book of Lamentations is direct, harsh, and full of dire warnings. Sometimes this is the only way to grab peoples’ attention in order to get them to really change. No matter which approach is adopted, the importance of words, warnings, and their powerful effect is clearly evident in the portion of Devarim.
An additional association between this portion and the Ninth of Avis that the book of Lamentations read publically on the evening of the Ninth of Av begins with the word aicha (“How could it have come to pass?”). Indeed, this Hebrew word is the name of the book in Hebrew. Significantly, Moses in this very portion uses this word to describe how exasperated he is at the many trials and tribulations the Jewish people have put him through in the desert: “How [aicha] can I bear alone your troubles, your burdens, and your quarrels?” (Deuteronomy 1:12). Recognizing this association, the Rabbis have decreed that this verse be chanted with the melody used for Lamentations instead of the regular one.
It is important to note that the word aicha has an even earlier biblical echo. After Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they hid in the Garden of Eden hoping to avoid the inevitable confrontation with God. God called out to them with the term “ayeka” (Where are you?). This Hebrew word is spelled the same as aicha but is pronounced slightly differently. God, of course, is not literally asking Adam and Eve where they are for He is Omniscient; rather, he is challenging them to answer a series of existential questions: How could you have done such a thing? Where are you now that you have done this? What motivated you to distance yourselves from Me to such a degree that now you feel you must hide from Me? What will you do to rectify the situation?
Ayeka connotes a profound expression of pain, distress, and shock. It is as if God is expressing His profound disappointment with the choices His most treasured creation has made. When God witnesses humanity’s moral and ethical degradation in Noah’s time, the Torah states that God “regretted in His heart” that He had created man (Genesis 6:6). While applying human emotions to an Omnipotent God is obviously problematic philosophically to say the least, the Torah “speaks in the language of man” so that we can in some small measure understand the Divine. Furthermore, this language emphasizes that God did not just create the universe and then leave it to its own devices; Judaism strongly believes that God is intimately involved in the universe’s development and truly cares about His creatures, especially humankind. Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz points out in his essay “The Encounter with the Divine” that this belief in a caring God is at the very heart of Judaism and in fact any notion of religion (see Eliezer Berkowitz, Essential Essays on Judaism, pp. 215-234).
The questions of “aicha”– How could this have happened? How can we bear this? – are the essence of the Ninth of Av. They burst from the lips in a scream that reverberates through the generations yet is as quiet as a broken heart. Jewish history is a source of great national and personal pride and the very basis for our individual identities, but it carries with it wounds that never seem to heal, searing sword thrusts that cut us to the core.
These same questions are at the very heart of Devarim as well. Moses who led the contentious people for forty years symbolizes the quintessential Jewish leader, and yet he too in a moment of desperation was forced to ask “aicha?” Although there is a certain measure of quiet satisfaction to be gained from taking on communal responsibility when called upon and seeing the fruit of one’s labors, still the yoke of duty weighs heavily on a true leader. The greater the leader, the greater the intellectual and emotional weight thrust upon him or her.
Rabbinic tradition links one more “aicha” in the Tanach to those already mentioned. This “aicha” appears in a verse from Isaiah that is always read in the Haftorah(the supplementary reading from the Prophets) on the Shabbat before the Ninth of Av. This Shabbat is named Shabbat Chazon, after the first word of the Haftorah. In fact, the word “chazon,” is the first word in the entire book of Isaiah and means “vision.” As part of Isaiah’s rebuke and warning to the people his “aicha” is a cry of anguish and disbelief:
How (aicha) has the faithful city [Jerusalem] become a harlot; it was full of judgment, righteousness dwelt in it but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebellious and companions of thieves, every one loves bribes and follows after reward; they neither judge the fatherless or the cause of the widow does not reach them. (Isaiah 1:21-23)
Chronologically the “aicha” of the book of Lamentations is the last of the four times this word is used. Had Adam and Eve responded appropriately to God’s original ayekaand mended their ways, and had the Jewish people heeded the heartrending “aicha’s” of Moses and Isaiah, the final “aicha”of Jeremiah could have been avoided.
The cry of ayeka/aicha remains till this day a piercing challenge to the Jewish people and in fact all mankind. Each person needs to hear not only the personal challenge being issued but also, and even more importantly, each person must nurture the ability to scream aicha from his or her innermost soul, in response to the brokenness of the world around us.
The numerical equivalent of aicha is thirty-six, the number of hidden tzaddikim in each generation in whose merit the world continues to exist. These righteous souls not only perform acts of loving-kindness without anyone knowing but also experience profound pain at the world’s condition. They know how beautiful this world could be and feel to the depths of their beings the anguish of this unredeemed world (see “God’s Goodness and the Existence of Evil”in the portion of Ki Tisa).
When we study Pirkei Avot, perhaps Judaism’s most condensed collection of moral, ethical, and wise sayings, we customarily begin each chapter by reciting the following words: “All Israel has a share in the World to Come as it is said: ‘And your people [Israel] are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever, they are a branch of My planting, My handiwork in which to take pride (Isaiah 60:21).’” Each Jew has a spark of righteousness, the potential to be a tzaddik, within. Every Jew is called upon to make contact with the innate point in his or her heart that is existentially uneasy with the state of the world. Having done so, he or she must then learn what actions to take to bring redemption and light into the world.
The Jewish people were chosen to constantly remind the world not to accept immorality, cruelty, hatred, and greed as humanity’s inescapable fate. God Himself, joined by Moses, the quintessential Jewish leader, and Isaiah and Jeremiah, two of the greatest prophets, railed against complacency and injustice, by screaming the word “ayeka/aicha.” Not only must we respond to the challenge, we must also take concrete steps to finally rectify the world.