On the 9th of the 5th month of the Jewish calendar, we remember and mourn the losses and disasters and calamities that have defined Jewish history since we were wandering in the desert. The key word we hammer home as we read Lamentations is the first word, “Eichah”. Translated by some as “Alas,” or “Woe,” a more literal translation is a question: “How?!”
We ask “Eichah” when we question how the holy temples were destroyed, how the Spanish Inquisition occurred, how could G-d have allowed 6 million Jews to be annihilated in the Holocaust… how we are supposed to process death and loss and deep, abiding misery.
The word “Eichah” has a deep history in Judaism. The first time it is found, G-d is looking for Adam after man and woman ate the fruit. G-d asks a one word question: “Eichah?” We translate it in this case as, “Where are you?”.
G-d asks Adam this question to give Adam the opportunity to explain himself, to own up, perhaps, or even to make a positive argument for why man and woman should have eaten the fruit. There is a chance here for a conversation, for perhaps even a mutual understanding to emerge. (Otherwise G-d would simply have dealt out punishment and moved on.)
But Adam chooses a different path. He evades. He blames Eve and G-d Himself for having provided temptation. Adam verbally dodges and weaves, proving that counter to popular myth, it is the practice of law and politics that is the oldest profession on earth.
G-d is, to put it mildly, not amused. Consequences ensue. But the end of that story and the consequences that Adam and Eve suffer is not merely (or even necessarily) because Adam and Eve ate the fruit. It is clear that the consequences are tied to an unwillingness to take responsibility, to make a proactive and positive case for a new relationship between G-d and man. Adam dissembles, and mankind has been dealing with the fallout ever since.
So we learn from their experience how NOT to respond to “Eichah.”
Here we are, remembering millenia of losses and death and tragedy, and we are once asking the question: Eichah?
The normal instinct, especially if we subscribe to the idea that we are but pawns that lack free will and initiative, is that we are supposed to wallow in misery and fear and despair. We have it so deeply ingrained that because this date is the worst in the Jewish calendar, that it is tempting to extrapolate, to somehow decide that wallowing is the only option open to us. It is safer to feel sorry for ourselves than to be roused to action.
But the Torah offers us another choice. The part of the Torah that is always read before the 9th is the beginning of Deuteronomy. And it includes Moshe asking a question of G-d and himself:
How [Eichah] can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife? (Deut: 1:12)
The very next verses contains a practical answer:
Choose wise, understanding, and knowledgeable men from among your tribes, and I will make them [aheads over you.’ And you [the people] answered me and said, ‘The thing which you have told us to do is good.’ (1:13-14)
What a contrast from Adam! Moshe has hit a roadblock, and he is stuck. He asks, “Eichah?” – and then he answers it with a practical solution (suggested to him by his father-in-law) which he then implements with great success.
I suggest that this year – and every year – when we sit on the ground, afflicting our souls, unwashed and mourning the calamities through the ages, and we cry out “Eichah!” we choose not to follow Adam’s example of claiming victimhood in the face of external pressures.
Instead, we should be following Moshe’s example. He did not wallow or abandon his post. He did not blame G-d or his wife. Instead he made a plan and executed it.
When we have problems, G-d does not want us to mourn and feel sorry for ourselves, or to blame other people or even ourselves. Instead, G-d wants us to do what Moshe did but what Adam patently failed to do: own up, square our shoulders, and march forward.
We are here not to wallow in self-pity, but to build and grow in every way we can.