Monday, July 19, 2010

Devarim -Hazon (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah and on Tisha b’Av, see the archives to this blog for July 2006, July 2007, August 2008, and July 2009.

Lamentations Rabbah: Midrashim for the “Black Fast”

The homilies on the scroll of Eikhah (Lamentations), read on Tisha b’Av, are among the most poignant and moving ones in the midrashic literature. The Sages probe here the meaning of the disasters that befell the Jewish people, both in biblical times and in their own day, in terms of both their theological and human implications. The midrash known as Eikhah Rabbati begins with a lengthy series of petihtot, introductory midrashim, not keyed to any particular verse, dealing with the overall question implied in the book’s title: “Why?” We begin with Petihta No. 4:

Rabbi Abahu began: “And they, like man, violated the covenant (Hosea 6:7)—this refers to Adam. The Holy One blessed be He said: I placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, and I commanded him, and he transgressed My command, and I sentenced him to expulsion and to being sent away, and I bewailed him: “Aikhah.”

I brought him into the Garden of Eden, as is said, “And the Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden” (Gen 2:15). And I commanded him, as is said, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying” (Gen 2:16). And he transgressed my command, as is said, “Have you eaten from the tree which I commanded you not to eat thereof?” (Gen 3:11). And I sentenced him to expulsion, as is said, “and He expelled the man” (3:24). And sent him away, as is said, “And the Lord sent him away from the Garden of Eden” (3:23). And I bewailed him with Aikhah, as is said, “And He said to him, ‘Where are you?’ (ayekha)” (3:9).

So too, I brought his sons into the Land of Israel, as is said, “And brought you into a land of plenty” (Jer 2:7). And I commanded them, as is said, “Command the children of Israel” (Lev 24:1). And they transgressed my commandment, as is said, “And all Israel have violated your Torah” (Daniel 9:11). And I judged them with expulsion, as is said, “from my house I expelled them” (Hosea 9:15). And with being sent away, as is said, “Send them from My presence and they shall go away” (Jer 15:1). And I bewailed them with Aikhah, as is said, “How does [the city] sit solitary” (Lam 1:1).

On the simplest level, this section is based upon a word-play between the Ayeka (“Where are you?”) of Genesis and the Eikhah (“How?”) of Lamentations —two different albeit related words spelled with the same four consonants: איכה . But on a deeper level, this midrash is saying something about the human condition, drawing our attention towards the profound similarity between two experiences: that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and that of the Jewish people vis-à-vis Eretz Yisrael. In both cases the same cycle is repeated: the enjoyment of Divine abundance and blessing; the state of being commanded; disobedience; punishment and banishment; and Divine mourning. Adam here represents Everyman: this cycle, so it seems to me, is somehow universal, on a certain level perhaps even inevitable. This is not to be confused with the Christian doctrine of Original Sin: man is not sinful in his essential metaphysical nature, and it is certainly not the predominant feature of his/her personality; nevertheless, it is an ineluctable part of his condition, and something that every individual and every society must recognize and confront.

Two important points about this cycle: First, that being placed in Gan Eden/Eretz Yisrael goes hand in hand with being commanded. There is never a simple, paradisiacal, child-like existence, in which human beings enjoy a world of pure pleasure (the root meaning of the name Eden: עדן) without responsibility. This may have been the dream of certain romantic or proto-romantic thinkers and poets such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and William Blake: to return to the golden age before humankind spoiled things through its own over-sophistication and over-intellection, to live joyfully, naturally and nobly in a world without restrictions and hence without evil (before “priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, and binding with briars my joys and desires”). But Judaism sees the state of being commanded by God as going hand in hand with life in the world; even if all one’s needs are met in an effortless way, luscious baked goods growing on trees, the human being—at least beyond earliest childhood—is never here simply to enjoy the physical world. Imperatives (mitzvot), even if the single rather arbitrary command not to eat of the Tree in the center of the Garden, are part of the condition of adult human existence: to be human means to be responsible, to live in a world of norms and imperatives (this is a central idea even in purely secular, rational, cognitively-based ethical systems such as that of Kant). It is through the state of being-commanded that one finds one’s relationship to God—the flip side being that responsibility means being held accountable before God and being punished for disobedience.

The second point is that, while God, because of the nature of the Divine economy, must enforce His norms and exact punishment for disobedience—He also regrets that things must be this way, and he mourns man’s banishment from Paradise. Here the opening words of the Kinot, the book of elegies for Tisha b’Av, are placed in God’s mouth. Not only do the Jews, exiled from their homeland and bereft of their beautiful city of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, weep, but so does God. “Woe is Me, that I exiled my children and destroyed my House,” He is portrayed saying elsewhere.

We now turn to the first midrash in the body of Eikhah Rabbah, whose chapters are arranged as a verse-by-verse exposition of the book:

“How does she sit solitary” (Lam 1:1). Three prophesied using the language of Eikhah: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moses said, “How can I bear alone…” (Deut 1:12). Isaiah said: “How is she become as a whore” (Isa 1:21). Jeremiah said: “How does she sit bereft.”

Rav Levi said: This may be compared to a matron who had three companions. One saw her in her peacefulness; one saw her in her wantonness, and one saw here in her disgrace and ugliness. Thus, Moses saw Israel in their dignity and peace, and said “How can I bear alone their trouble.” Isaiah saw them in their wantonness, as said, “How is she become like a whore.” Jeremiah saw them in their disgrace, and said ”How des she sit abandoned.”

The three verses quoted here, all beginning with the word Eikhah, are so-to-speak the anchors of the readings for this Shabbat and for Tisha b’Av which follows it. The first is from the Torah portion, Devarim: while still in the period of the Exodus, with Israel along the path leading to realizing their destiny, this verse notes their problematic side—the people are quarrelsome, discontented (as we saw throughout the Book of Numbers), difficult, complaining, so that Moses wonders how he can manage to lead them. The second verse, taken from the prophets, is from the haftarah for this Shabbat, known as Shabbat Hazon (“vision,” from the first word of that reading)—a particularly powerful and stern prophetic admonition. The third is, of course the opening verse of the scroll of Eikhah (which, in some ancient customs, was read or studied on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, either in addition to or instead of its reading on the night of the fast itself). All three verses use the key word Eikhah, thus constituting a leitmotif for the entire season: the same word opens two other chapters of Eikhah, most of whose chapters are alphabetical acrostics, as well as quite a few of the Kinot, the medieval piyyutim of mourning, in dirge-like or elegiac meter, recited ion the morning of Tisha b’Av.

Again, the midrash notes three stages of the people’s behavior: the initial stage of peace and contentment, in which their own weaknesses may be seen, but are not yet in the foreground; then their wild and dissolute behavior (is there a hint that sin may simply be a result of boredom?) which leads to disgrace and the matron’s fall from favor; and, finally, its poverty and disgrace, after losing all they held dear and while surviving on a near-subsistence level.


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