Eichah, how can it be? How can it be that in the face of overwhelming knowledge of the consequences of our action, we continue to plunder our planet?
How can it be that we continue to consume animals in the way we do, knowing that our consumption supports cruel factory farming that further despoils the environment?
How can it be that self-centeredness and greed so permeates our lives that one per cent of the people on earth have 90% of its wealth, with some individuals wealthier than countries?
How can it be that we can close our eyes to the suffering of refugees fleeing from war and famine? Eichah, how can it be?
This Shabbat followed by the commemoration of Tisha B’Av, we will hear the plaintive cry of “Eichah” from three different prophets. First, Moshe, in the opening of his book of Deuteronomy; second, Isaiah, whose prophecy is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, and finally Jeremiah, whose book Eichah we read at the evening and morning services of Tisha B’Av.
Our tradition has established that these three cries of Eichah are all read at the culmination of these three weeks of darkness between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. The 17th of Tammuz commemorates the day the walls of Jerusalem were breached, first by the Babylonians in 576 BCE and then the Romans in the year 70CE. The destruction of the First and Second Temples were horrific, devastating events as consequential for the Jews of those times as the Shoah for us. For millennia we have been reflecting on what befell us in those dark times; as well, the message of our prophets has been that we must take responsibility for those acts of devastation, for we were not merely victims but responsible citizens of the world making choices that had disastrous consequences. Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah all charge us to make an honest assessment of where we went wrong as a people.
These three weeks, culminating in the commemoration of Tisha B’Av in that sense are a parallel to the time leading up to Yom Kippur. Just in the month of Elul and over the Yamim Noraim we are called to do a fearless individual moral reckoning, so too in this time are we meant to undertake an honest communal moral reckoning.
Eichah though is not just a plaintive cry, but also a call to action. Judaism’s way is not to wallow in the darkness, but to examine it to see where cracks of light can come through. The point of moral accounting is to have resolve to make changes – this season of the three weeks we are called to make changes to community and society to be more responsive to the problems of “how can it be?”, and more responsible for making it no longer so. The word “Eichah” in Hebrew can also be vowelled “Ayekha” – the first question from God to human: Where are you?