|On the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av the liturgical calendar demands that we begin to read the book of Deuteronomy – Devarim, and for the haftarah we read the vision of Isaiah, the reading which unusually gives the Shabbat its special name – Chazon, vision. This haftarah is the third of a set of three haftarot that do not match up with the torah reading, but rather with the three weeks before the ninth of Av, and are called the haftarot of rebuke. (In this case while today is the 9th of Av, it serves as the Shabbat before as we do not fast on Shabbat, and Tisha b’Av observance will begin tonight)
All sorts of cycles of Jewish history and philosophy come together in the readings for this week, focussing us for the task ahead as we become aware of the nearness of Ellul, and the need for serious introspection. And the words, the language of the readings, give us a number of hints, guiding our thought patterns gently but certainly, as we enter this time.
On Tisha b’Av by tradition we read the Megillah of Lamentations, known by its first exclamation of desperation and sorrow – Eicha. The word, meaning “How can this be?” or simply “Alas” is not particularly common in bible, yet it appears in both the torah reading and the haftarah today. It is as if the exclamation is being used as a prompt to our subconscious –“How can we have arrived at this state once more after all our good intentions last year?”
The word is uncommon. It is used only by three prophets – Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah (here in Lamentations). But there is another word which looks exactly the same in the unpointed torah text and the Midrash notes this with interest: After Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they hid themselves away from God when God came looking for them in the garden. And God called out to them “Ayeka” – Where are you?
The words Eicha? And Ayeka? look the same in the unvowelled text.
The Midrash suggest that in that call God was showing all the despair that would later be the Jewish experience at the destruction of Jerusalem – “How lonely sits the city once great with people”. (Lam1:1)
The link is obvious – that it is the choices we make that bring about ill fortune, it is our own behaviour that is the progenitor of our despair.
But there is another way to look at this similarity of consonants – in the passage in Genesis God calls out to human beings “Where are you”, but we might as easily call out to God the same question. As we survey the destruction of our worlds again and again, we must ask of God – “where are You?”
Some years ago I had a long conversation with a woman congregant who had been brought out of Germany as a child in the kinderstransport, but who had then had to live with the terrible pain of knowing that her family had not survived the camps, had written letters to her begging her to help them out of that hell, had died wondering if she would be able to save them. She told me that she was not going to fast on Yom Kippur any more. I said I thought that was reasonable – she was ill and on a great deal of medication, but that wasn’t her point. “No” she said, “it isn’t the medication, it is just that for nearly 80 years I have been saying sorry to God every Yom Kippur, and now I feel I have done it. Now it is time for God to begin to say sorry to me”.
Her life had been long and filled with all sorts of pain, emotional, spiritual and physical. But she had come to the last stretch and she had a problem for God. It was both the exclamation “Eicha” and the question “Ayeka” – “How could this happen? Where were You?”
The list of the calamities that are said to have occurred on Tisha b’Av is extensive. The day that the spies reported back that the land was wonderful but would not be easy to take – and the people rejected Moses and Joshua’s urging to go into battle for it – was said to have been Tisha b’Av for example. And as we consider the violent history of the Jewish people, surviving terrible destructions again and again, we are left with the questions – “How could it have happened again? Eicha? And: Where were You? Ayeka?”
As the pain of the Jewish people reverberates down the centuries, so do those two words.
Which brings us to Devarim – and Chazon.
God creates the world in the very beginning of Torah with words – God speaks and the world as we know it emerges. The huge bulk of Torah takes place in the midbar, the place where the action of speech and the words spoken create a space in which God can be encountered. Wilderness, unstructured and unowned land – the dimension where ideas can be embodied not only in our usual use of language but in our very existence. And at the end of the book of Numbers, known as Bemidbar, the narration leaves us poised on the edge of the land, with Moses about to die and told to anoint Joshua, the only other survivor of the midbar experience, as his successor. Moses passes on his authority of leadership, he climbs a mountain so as to see the midbar where he has spent most of his life, and the land of Canaan which he will never enter, and then he begins to speak. Devarim. Words pour from him in a torrent. His memories, his meaning, his purpose – his very soul. Facing his end he chooses to mirror the actions of God at the creation of the world – he uses words to bring into being the most important things he knows. He answers the questions “Eicha” – how can these situations happen?” And “Ayeka – where are You?”
The situations happen because we contribute again and again to them happening. Where is God?– God is right here. Moses wants us to know these answers. He puts an enormous amount of energy into reminding us, calling heaven and earth as witness. He rehearses our history – and our complicity in it. He offers blessings and curses and repeats the simple rule – what we choose to do always has consequences. And he tells us again and again how God is waiting for us, is close to us, is never far away and only waiting for our call. Poor Moses – it is learning he can never quite pass on to us, for each of us has to learn it for ourselves.
Today is Shabbat Devarim. It marks the beginning of the book of Moses’ final and more distilled teachings to go with us into the future when Moses cannot. It is the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, a day of almost resigned and patient waiting for the worst after almost three weeks of semi mourning. Words seem to be useless now. They cannot change the future. We arealmost weighed down by the number of them being prayed and read, exclaimed or muttered.
Words are everywhere – we cannot get away from them. And they begin to lose their power to reach us, so many words surround us.
And so Isaiah brings us something else along to help us with all these words – he brings a vision, a different sense of how to interpret and understand the world.
The vision of Isaiah son of Amotz…. Isaiah’s vision projects onto the harsh reality around him and establishes a different kind of perspective. Isaiah reminds us that at the Creation God spoke, and God saw. Sometimes, when the words aren’t enough any more, it is important to draw back and to see. To notice, to observe and perceive, to witness.
We Jews are a people of words, and we can use words in so many clever ways. We are sometimes able to block out our reality for a time with a judicious use of language. We are sometimes able to confuse ourselves or others about the truth of our lives. We can construct so many different worlds, from the minutiae of our legal system to the legends chronicled in our midrashim. By declaring time sacred, we can make it so for the period of Shabbat. By asserting our scriptural narrative we can make order in the universe. But sometimes we need not to declare or proclaim, but to look, and to really see. We may have a prayer called “Shema” – Listen! which we expect others as well as ourselves to hear as we recite it, but we also have a torah reading “Re’eh” – see!
Moses, our greatest prophet, said of himself that he was not so good with words. He had instead the experience, the encounter, the vision, to take him and our people through the wilderness and to the edge of the promised land. Our prophets were also men – and women – of vision, something we occasionally choose to forget.
But this Shabbat we are reminded – Chazon as well as Devarim – Vision as well as words, to look as well as to speak and listen.
As we enter Tisha b’Av we will need both of these senses fully honed. And in the run up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which these liturgical events signal to us, we are reminded- use words to understand the world and explain it to ourselves and to God, use words to pray, to ask, to meet each other – but never forget the other sense – stand back and really take a long hard look at our world and our place in it. Watch ourselves and perceive our own contribution to where we now are. Forget our clever use of words just for once, and instead, use our sight our foresight, our imagination, our revelation – get in touch once more with our own vision.