How lonely sits the city That was full of people! She has become like a widow Who was once great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces Has become a forced laborer! 2She weeps bitterly in the night And her tears are on her cheeks; She has none to comfort her Among all her lovers. All her friends have dealt treacherously with her; They have become her enemies.…
These words open the book of Lamentations, the scroll recited on the 9th of Av, the day of disaster for the Jewish people. The day Jerusalem fell twice, the Jews of England were expelled in the middle ages, the Jews of Spain expelled in 1492, and the day Germany declared war on Russia, ushering in World War One. The words recited, in the plaintive Lamentations chant, give voice to the heartache of a people utterly ruined, a people full of mourning, full of anxiety for the future, a people who have experienced such tragedy it is amazing they can find words to describe it.
It is ironic that we anticipate this book, this holy day, with parashat devarim, the portion of words. In it Israel stands on the shore of the Jordan, their future bright and shining before them. The disasters of the desert, the endless tragedy of slavery is behind them, and before them the land promised to their ancestors, and with that land God’s blessing and protection. Just as this generation hadn’t tasted the bitter fruit of slavery, so too they cannot imagine the defeats to befall their descendants.
Moses can, however, and he has words for Israel. Many, many words. Moses begins his last charge to the people, for Israel won’t have the benefit of hearing Moses any longer. And boy, does he let ‘em have it! Again and again Moses rebukes Israel, reminding them of mistake after mistake, rebuking them with love. Rabbi Simcha Bunem argues that Moses spoke to each person individually, according to their age, personality and level of understanding. It’s not that Moses wants to criticize them; the rabbis imagine Moses as reluctant to admonish his people. But he has to; the mistakes they’ve made in the past—idolatry, disloyalty to God, faithlessness—die hard. They have to hear it, so they can enter the land with Joshua and know success instead of the failures of the past.
We’re not big on hearing about failure. We don’t want to hear to bad news. Again and again lately I talk to people who try to specifically NOT focus on the news in Israel and around the world. And how often I have heard people try to ‘protect’ one another from hurt feelings. At Michal Cherrin’s funeral this past week, I talked to one parent who didn’t want to tell her daughter, a former student, of her passing. Of course the daughter got the news via texts from friends; the truth will out eventually, and the question is whether or not we are willing to hear those words, really truly hear them, and act accordingly. This is true in our own lives—we become so adept at hiding our true selves even from ourselves that we avoid the real work of living up to our God-given potential, and it seems like only at the high holidays do we get a real glimpse at ourselves and work to fix the broken shards within.
And it is equally true in our current climate. It would be easy to focus on the news of Israel and ignore the dying in Gaza, but we cannot. It would be easy to dismiss the critics of Israel as naïve (though often they are) or anti-Semitic (and frequently they are as well), but many are well-meaning, and knowledgeable, and our friends. Likewise we may read support of Israel that cheers us until it turns ugly, bigoted, impugning all Arabs, all Presbyterians, all liberals, all students, all of anyone. And while we’re focused on Israel, we can replace the name of our home with any issue of controversy: gun control, abortion, immigration, the death penalty, racism.
Jerusalem fell the first time because of idolatry, and the second time because of senseless hatred. If Israel and the Jewish people is to survive, if we are to survive, we need to put aside the idolatry of our own rightness, our casual hatred of the other, and listen deeply. Doesn’t mean we have to agree, but it does mean we have to take their words seriously. We must hear before we can rebuke or respond, and then respond as Moses did, in the way they can hear. Maybe we can’t change their minds (and we probably can’t, and it’s probably a waste of time), but maybe we can learn something even in our disagreement.
Eichah, Lamentations, begins with powerful words of defeat, it ends with powerful words of hope, words we recite in our liturgy today: chadeish yameinu mikedem: renew our days, as of old. Renew us, and our words O God, that we may hear and answer each other wholeheartedly. Amen.