The first appearance of the word eykhah in the bible is in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim.2 Eykhah also appears in the accompanying haftarah reading from first Isaiah, and in the book of Lamentations, which we read next week during the fast of Tisha B’Av. (In 2020 we read the Torah portion Devarim during the week ending this Saturday, July 25, and observe Tisha B’Av beginning Wednesday evening, July 29.)
The book of Deuteronomy (also called Devarim in Hebrew) is a long series of speeches that Moses delivers on the bank of the Jordan before he dies and the other Israelites cross over to conquer Canaan. Some of his speeches outline God’s laws and others relate what Moses remembers happening on the 40-year journey from Egypt.1
Moses’ first recollection begins with God telling the Israelites to leave Mount Horeb (elsewhere called Mount Sinai) and go to Canaan to take possession of the land. Moses says:
Then I spoke to you at that time, saying: “I am not able to carry you by myself! God, your God, has multiplied you, and here you are today like the stars of the heavens in multitude … Eykhah can I handle by myself alone your load and your burden and your disputing? Bring men of wisdom and discernment and knowledge from among yourselves to your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:9-10, 12-13)
Here the word eykhah begins a cry of desperation expressing Moses’ memory of how overwhelmed he was.
This week’s haftarah reading from first Isaiah4 rails against the immorality of the people of Jerusalem in the 8th century B.C.E. The prophet cries out:
Eykhah she has become a prostitute,
The [once] faithful city
Filled with justice?
The righteous used to linger in her,
But now—murderers. (Isaiah 1:21)
When Isaiah asks “Eykhah (How can it be?) she has become a prostitute, the [once] faithful city?”, it is a prophet’s cry of desperation, both exclaiming over how far the city of Jerusalem has fallen and sounding the alarm that its residents must change or else. Isaiah can imagine a reversal of the immoral behavior of the Israelites, but he is afraid they will not cooperate until God smites the evil-doers.
Eykhah appears four times in the book of Lamentations, which we read next week.5 In fact, Lamentations is called Eykhah in Hebrew because that is the first word in the book. Tisha B’Av, the day next week dedicated to remembering the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, includes fasting and reading the book of Lamentations/Eykhah.
This book is set in a time shortly after the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and its first Jewish temple in 587 B.C.E. It opens with this rhetorical question:
Eykhah the city sits alone,
Once teeming with people?
She has become like a widow,
Once great among the nations.
A princess among the provinces,
She has become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)
Here the poet6 utters a cry of despair over how the city of Jerusalem has changed from an important metropolis to a hillside of ruins. Eykhah, how can it be?
The second chapter also begins with a rhetorical question:
Eykhah God, in his wrath, concealed in a cloud
The daughter of Zion?
Cast down from heaven to earth,
The splendor of Israel?
Did not remember his footstool
On his day of wrath? (Lamentations 2:1)
This time the word eykhah expresses the poet’s despair over the nature of God, who exalted Jerusalem with splendor and chose the city as God’s footstool or resting place—and then in a fit of anger cast it down and made it disappear. How could God do such a thing?
“Oh how can it be that the city sits alone?” we read in Lamentations on the fast of Tisha B’Av. “Oh how can God forget God’s footstool on a day of wrath?” Now all the people of the world might ask: “Oh how can God abandon us to this pandemic, letting the innocent die along with the guilty?”
What if we ask ourselves: “How can I grow out of my belief in a god who is a parent, either loving or abusive? How can I stop blaming God and accept what is beyond my control? And how can I take responsibility for what is within my reach?”
“Oh how can the once faithful city have become a prostitute?” Isaiah asks in this week’s haftarah reading. Now Americans might ask: “Oh how can our once responsible national government have become devoted to stroking the ego of a megalomaniac?”
What if we ask ourselves: “How can we restore a government devoted to saving lives and helping all of its citizens?”
“Oh how can I handle by myself alone your load and your burden and your disputing?” Moses asks in this week’s Torah portion. Now, in the Covid-19 pandemic, we might ask: “Oh how can I handle by myself taking care of the kids without a single break, without a summer program or a class or a play group? How can I handle the dangers of going to work, or the dangers of a simple trip to the grocery store?” The burden can indeed be too much for one person, alone.
What if those of us who are not as overwhelmed ask ourselves: “How can I help my neighbor or my friend and safely lighten their burden?”
- Other Hebrew words that can be translated as “how” include eykh (אֵיךְ), which begins a rhetorical question in two of its three appearances in the bible; eikhakha (אֵכָכָה), used rhetorically in all three of its appearances; ey (אֵי), which usually means “where” but is used once as a rhetorical “how”; and mah (מַה), which usually means “what” but is used twice as a rhetorical “how”. But none of these words are used as an “Oh, how could it happen?” beginning a lament.
- The word God calls out in Genesis 3:9 when Adam and Eve are hiding in the garden is ayekha (אַיֶּכָּה). Although this word is spelled with the same letters as eykhah, the vowel pointing indicates that the word is actually ayeh (אַיֵּה) = where, with the suffix cha (כָּה) = you. Thus ayekha means “Where are you?”
- Moses’ memory is not always accurate, and sometimes the way he tells the story is self-serving. See my post Devarim: In God We Trust? Deuteronomy 1:9-13 is a different version of the delegation of administrative and legal jobs than either the one in Exodus/Shemot 18:13-26 where Moses’ father-in-law Yitro advises him to delegate 70 elders, or the one in Numbers/Bemidbar 11:16 and 11:24-25 where God tells him to delegate 70 elders. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses claims that he asked for help on his own initiative, and that he asked the people to choose their own leaders to assist him with giving orders and judging legal disputes.
- See my post Haftarat Devarim—Isaiah: False Worship.
- Lamentations 1:1, 2:1, 4:1, and 4:2.
- The author of Lamentations is not named in the book, but rabbinic tradition ascribes it to the prophet Jeremiah.