The Rabbi's Study

Eikhah? Ayekah? How? Where?

It’s a question of where and how…

One of the things which never ceases to amaze me about the world, in general, and the Jewish tradition, in particular, is the synchronicity of time. Jewish time syncs up in such a way that Parashat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av. According to Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1839-1933, Belarus) in his legal commentary Biur Halakhah (428:4) this is so we read this week’s Torah portion in conjunction with the rebuke Moshe gives the Children of Yisrael so that we will also recite the Haftarah in which the prophet Isaiah offers his rebuke regarding the destruction of the Temple which, of course, we commemorate on Tisha b’Av. But there is yet another incredibly synchronistic element which connects Parashat Devarim to Tisha b’Av, and specifically Megillat Eikhah, the book of Lamentations, which we recite when we begin our fast.

Megillat Eikhah receives its name from the first word of the text (like every book in the Torah), but in total the word eikhah – “How?!” – appears at the beginning of three of the chapters; it becomes a sort of refrain, an unanswerable question of mourning and confusion. How can it be? The same word appears five times in Torah, all of them in the Book of Deuteronomy, and its first instance in this week’s Torah portion when Moshe asks, “Eikhah? How can I alone carry your struggles, your burdens and your quarrels?” (Deut. 1:12.) The word also appears in the Haftarah for this week’s Torah portion, when the prophet Isaiah says, “Eikhah? How has she become a whore, that faithful city…” (Isa. 1:21).

Case closed – neat, right? Come one now, you know me better than that. How could you even begin to think I’d stop there?!

For the mystics in our tradition, all destruction experienced in the world goes back to the first destruction – the destruction of our eternity in Eden. And what was the result of the first humans eating from that fateful fruit? They hid in shame. And what did God say to the first human? “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9) in Hebrew: ayekah. And the word is spelled precisely the same as eikhah.

The Zohar, the seminal work of Jewish mysticism, takes note of this fascinating synchronicity of these seemingly disparate words and says (Zohar I Breishit 29a): “”God called to the human and said, ‘Where are you?’ This is an allusion to the future destruction of the Temple for which is cried out ‘How?!’ …(and what is really meant is) ayeh ko, where are you ko.” 

What the Zohar does at the end there is split the word ayekah/eikhah into two words, אי and כה. According to Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla (1248-1306 Spain) in his mystical writing on Divine Names, Sha’arei Orah (Gates of Light), כה ko is a euphemism for the Divine Presence, the Shekhinah. This is a phrase most frequently translated as ‘thus,’ or ‘here,’ and most often is utilized in prophetic books, as in the phrase so frequently used by Isaiah (and others): Thus saith the Lord… According to Sha’arei Orah, when Hashem appears to Avraham in a vision before his name change and shows him the stars of the heaven and promises him abundant offspring, the Torah says, “כה יהיה זרעך, thus (ko) will be your seed,” (Gen. 15:9) that what Hashem is telling Avraham is that the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, will be the attribute which Avraham brings into the world through his offspring – the Jewish people. So, when the Zohar reads eikhah as “ayeh ko, where are you ko?” It is a question of where is the Divine Presence after the destruction? A similar trope is evoked in the Mussaf Shabbat Amidah when we chant “ayeh makom k’vodo, what is the source of God’s glory?”

What the Zohar is getting at in making the link between eikhah and ayekah is that by hiding from the Divine Presence, Adam and Havvah put out into the world a division between humanity and the Holy One, and that division spiritually leads to the divisions amongst humanity which leads to the destruction of the Temple. The link, then, between eikhah in the Torah reading, eikhah in the Haftarah and eikhah at Tisha b’Av all goes back to ayekah/ayeh ko, but this time it is not God asking us “where are you?” but rather we are asking God, simultaneously, How can this be? Where are you?

And that is the question we all need to ask ourselves for Tisha b’Av – How can this be? How can our world be in this state? Where are you? Where are you showing up to transform our reality from brokenness and destruction into healing and wholeness? So? Nu? Where are you?

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