Parashat D’varim

August 3, 2011 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, Dvarim, News

Vision, Lamentation, and the Question of “How?”

By Rabbi Regina L. Sandler-Phillips

The Shabbat on which the first portion of Deuteronomy is chanted from the Torah each year is called Shabbat Hazon ”the  œSabbath of Vision.  Its name comes most directly from the accompanying haftarah or prophetic reading, which proclaims “The vision of Isaiah, son of Amotz, which he envisioned over Judah and Jerusalem…  (Isaiah 1:1).

At first glance, the  œvision  of these paired Torah and haftarah readings seems to be one of impending doom more than anything else. Each reading anticipates the imminent arrival of Tisha b’Av, our Jewish day of tragedy and mourning, during which we read the book that is called Lamentations in English and Eikha in Hebrew.

In fact, each of these paired readings contains the word Eikha itself, which literally means  œHow.  It is customary to chant one or both of the verses that begin with  œEikha  in the same sorrowful cantillation in which the Book of Lamentations is chanted on Tisha b’Av.

 œEikha / How can I bear alone your stress and your burden and your quarreling?  is the plaintive question of Moses, toward the beginning of his long farewell address to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 1:12).

 œEikha / How it has (or How has it) become as a harlot, a faithful city ”full of justice, in which righteousness would lodge; and now murderers  is the pained observation of Isaiah (1:21).

Moses   œEikha / How can I bear [this] alone ¦?  can be understood in two ways. One is rhetorical, the way of lamentation; and the implied answer is  œI can t.  The other is the way of problem-solving ( œHow am I going to figure this out? ), and the implied answer is  œI can. 

The  œEikha  of Isaiah can also be understood in two ways. One is the way of lamentation ( œHow terrible it has become! ). The other is the way of analysis ( œHow has it become so terrible? ).

It is tempting to disparage the way of lamentation in favor of the ways of problem-solving and analysis. We want to fix the problem ”as quickly as possible ”and not  œwallow  in our feelings about it. Yet, in the desperate rush toward a quick fix, we tend to make our problems worse. Similarly, our analyzing tends to deflect accountability away from ourselves, and too often leads to another form of wrongdoing also noted by Isaiah: sh lah etzba, or finger-pointing (Isaiah 58:9).

If we look again at the challenge of Eikha, we may discover a clarity of vision that can only be realized if the true value of lamentation is understood and reclaimed.

Thus says the Eternal-One of Hosts: Consider, and call for the mekonenot / lamenting-women, that they may come; and send for the wise-women, that they may come. And let them hasten and raise a wailing over us, that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush waters….So hear, women, the word of the Eternal-One, and let your ear receive the word of God s mouth; and teach your daughters wailing, and every woman teach her neighbor lamentation.

These are the words of the prophet Jeremiah (9:16-17, 19), to whom the book of Lamentations is also attributed. Jeremiah makes a remarkable assertion: that the expression of grief is actually the will of God, and that the facilitation of such grieving is a form of wisdom ”as well as a communal responsibility.

This is further codified in the early rabbinic text of the Mishnah (Moed Katan 3:9):

What is ¦ lamentation? That one [woman] speaks and all the rest respond after her; as it is said:  œand teach your daughters wailing, and every woman teach her neighbor lamentation. 

Traditional lamentation, then, is a process of call and response. Originally, it was a powerful form of women s leadership. Many Jews today chant Psalms during times of trouble in a similar call-and-response mode.

 œEikha / How can I bear [this] alone ¦?  As the subsequent Torah narrative indicates, Moses  lament expresses a basic truth: he CAN T bear this alone. What he can and does do is enter the call-and-response of community, where the burdens of stress and grief can be shared. The  œHow?!  of lamentation releases and clarifies the  œHow?  of vision, which ultimately facilitates real accountability and effective action.

 œDeep calls to deep in the voice of Your channels; all of Your breakers and Your waves have passed over me  (Psalm 42:8). May it be our vision to learn the wisdom of call and response when we are faced with overwhelming challenges, so that we can serve as God s channels of healing and support for each other through the times of crisis and pain.


Rabbi Regina L. Sandler-Phillips, MSW, MPH, AJR  99, is an independent chaplain and educator who shares the art of singing for consolation as part of her work to reclaim the sacred traditions of the Jewish burial fellowship. She has taught applied ethics and professional skills as adjunct faculty at AJR since 2003.