Devarim: Oh, How?

August 3, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Posted in Devarim | 2 Comments

We’ve journeyed with the children of Israel (and the assorted folks who left Egypt with them) all the way to the Jordan River.  Right across the Jordan lies the promised land of Canaan.  And God has already told Moses he will die without crossing over.

So now we begin the fifth book of the Torah, called Deuteronomy (“Second Law” in Latin and Greek) or Devarim (“Words” or “Things” in Hebrew).  The book consists of a long series of speeches that Moses delivers to the Israelites on the bank of the Jordan.  Moses reviews the history of the people, from the revelation at Mt. Sinai 40 years before, through all their adventures as they journeyed through the wilderness, to their arrival at the Jordan River.  In the process, he also restates many of the laws and divine decrees.  And his account differs here and there from the account in Exodus/Shemot, Leviticus/Vayikra, and Numbers/Bemidbar—partly because Moses is addressing a new generation, and partly because he remembers events in a different emotional context.

(See last year’s blog on the first Torah portion of Deuteronomy, “Devarim:  Blame”.)

In this week’s Torah portion, also called Devarim, Moses says he was working too hard as the people’s only judge and legislator.  He does not mention that his father-in-law, Yitro, advised him to appoint subordinate judges from among the elders.  (Probably he omits any mention of Yitro on purpose, since Yitro was a Midianite, and Midianites in general are out of favor after the business with Baal-Peor.)

Instead, Moses pretends he asked the people, on his own initiative, for a subdivision of labor.

Oh, how can I bear, all by myself, your load and your burden and your disputing?  Bring in for yourselves men for your tribes who are wise and insightful and knowing, and I will appoint them as your heads.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:12-13)

eykhah = Oh how?  Where?  (The word usually begins a rhetorical question that is a lament.  It is stronger than eykh, a more ordinary word for “how”.)

The word eykhah appears only once before this in the Torah, when Adam and Eve have eaten fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and they try to hide from God among the trees of the garden.  God calls out:  “Ayekhah?”—a variant spelling, usually translated as “Where are you?”  But it could also be translated as “How are you?” or even “Oh, how could you?”

But Moses says “eykhah”  five times in the book of Deuteronomy.  I think he’s at the end of his rope.  These people were not easy to lead; for the last 40 years, they’ve been complaining and bickering and challenging Moses’ authority and turning away to other gods.  Now, at the age of 120, Moses has finally herded them all to the edge of the promised land.  And he’s about to die.  He tries to deliver his final message to the people calmly and firmly, but his frustration and exhaustion and near-despair show through.  One of the giveaways is the word  “eykhah”.

Often in the Torah, Eykhah is the cry of someone pushed to the edge of despair.  Isaiah asks rhetorically:  Oh, how has the faithful city become a prostitute? (1:21)   The book of Lamentations is called Eykhah in Hebrew because it begins:  Oh, how can the city that was so full of people be sitting alone?  (1:1)  The poet (possibly the prophet Jeremiah) breaks out with an eykhah several more times:

Oh, how could God shame the daughter of Zion in His wrath?  (2:2)  Oh, how can gold be so dull, the good shining gold?  The sacred gems are poured out at every street corner.  The precious children of Zion are worth pure gold.  Oh, how can they be reckoned like clay storage-jars made by the hands of a potter?  (4:1-2)

I’ve felt that incredulity about what happens in the world.  Oh, how could things have become so bad?  Oh, how could the people in power have made such terrible decisions?  Oh, how can anyone treat valuable human beings like dirt?

I’ve also felt exhausted and close to despair, like Moses, over the job of leading people whose agendas don’t match my mission.  Oh, how can they keep hurting each others’ feelings, and thinking only about themselves, and expecting me to handle everything?  Momentarily I forget the joys and the revelations of my journey as a Jewish lay leader, and I want to cry, Eykhah!

But then I think of  new way to delegate, and people volunteer.  Or one of my fellow lay leaders says something that touches my heart.  Or an insight comes to me that makes it all meaningful.

May each of our eykhah moments be mitigated by an aha! moment.  May we all remember to look for the good as well as the bad.  And may every Jew who reads Lamentations/Eykhah next week on Tisha B’Av move from despair to mourning to comfort to joy.


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  1. […] Every weekly Torah portion is paired with a haftarah (“what emerges”), a passage from Prophets/Neviim. For nearly 2,000 years, in traditional Saturday Torah services, the chanting of the haftarah follows the chanting of the Torah portion. This week, Jews read the first Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, which is also called Devarim (“Words”). The haftarah this week is Isaiah 1:1-27. Both the Torah portion and the haftarah contain the word eykhah, which means “how” as in “Oh, how could this happen?” This is also the opening word of the book of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha Be-Av, the fast day shortly after this Shabbat. (See my earlier blog post, Devarim: Oh, How.) […]

  2. […] Eykhah (אֵיכָה) = Oh, how? Alas! How could it be? (See my post Devarim: Oh, How?) […]

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