by Rabbi Joshua Heller.
On July 24th, Jews around the world will observe Tisha B'Av, mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples and commemorating many other tragedies of Jewish history. The literary centerpiece of the holiday is the book of Lamentations, Eikha, which mourns the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people from its land. The book's refrain is the word "Eikha," asking the question "How could it be?" - "How could it be that the teeming city lay desolate, that God rejected God's people?" (Lam 1:1, 2:1, 4:1, 4:2)
Devarim, the Torah portion read in the week preceding Tisha B'Av, contains a premonition of that sentiment of doom. Moses proclaims what would seem to be wonderful news, or at worst a mixed blessing: the Jewish people have grown so numerous that Moses no longer has the stamina to serve as its sole judge and dispense justice to the whole nation.
Rabbinic legend explains that with each legal case, the parties multiplied witnesses and arguments, and brought new evidence after the cases would have appeared to have been closed, so that the only way to hear them all was to appoint judges and leaders who could share the burden. Our reading of the situation, however, is transformed from one of administrative overload to one of religious pathos when Moses uses this the striking, tragic word, asking "Eikha - How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering?" (Deuteronomy 1:12) Our musical tradition accentuates the negative connotation of the word, as that single verse is read in the same uniquely haunting melody reserved for the mournful book of Eikha. There is, as we will see, a special significance to the link between the "Eikha" of this parasha and the "Eikha" of Tisha B'Av.
The word "Eikha" by its very meaning suggests the asking of a rhetorical question. The listeners and readers of the book were keenly aware of the devastation its author described, and he did not provide detailed answers to the question of "why." Even though certain national tragedies defy full explanation, those who heard his lamentation had previously heard many prophetic warnings about Israel's misdeeds, whether ritual, moral, or political, which led it to destruction.