Every week, parshaoftheweek.com brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...
A few weeks ago, on Tisha B'Av, we read the Book of Lamentations. In Hebrew, this is not the name of the book. Rather, it is called by it's first word; Eicha - "How?" "How she sits alone, the city [Jerusalem] that was full of people, she has become like a widow, she that was great among the nations, princess among the provinces, is now a vassal." The word Eicha appears three more times in the Book of Lamentations and, all together, a total of 16 times in all the books of the Bible. Generally, the word is used to express some profound, existential doubt or amazement about the world and one's place in it. The opening verse of Lamentations which I quoted above is a good example - how has such a turnabout occurred, how can it be that the great city of Jerusalem is so utterly alone and abandoned?
A similar sense of wonderment at Jerusalem's fate is expressed in a later verse in the same book - "How is the gold dimmed, the finest gold transformed? The hallowed stones are poured out at the head of every street. The precious sons of Zion, compared to fine gold, how are they considered to be earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter?" The word is used in a similar way by Moshe, in Deuteronomy, chapter 1, verse 12, when expressing his personal problem with his position, and complains about the impossibility of leading the fractious Jewish people through the desert into the promised land: "How can I bear alone your load, your burden, your quarrelling?" It is used again later in the same book, in chapter 7, when Moshe anticipates and tries to allay the fears of the Jewish people as they prepare to enter Israel - "If you should say in your heart, these nations are more than I, how will I be able to dispossess them?"
In this week's parsha, Re'eh, the word eicha also appears, again in connection with Moshe's anticipation of the thoughts that the people of Israel will have when they enter the land of Israel and encounter the Canaanite nations: "Take care, lest you be ensnared and go after them, after they have been destroyed from before you, lest you inquire about their Gods, saying 'how do these nations serve their Gods, I will do the same, I, too.'" There seem to be a number of problems in this verse, the most basic being this: if the Israelites will destroy the other nations, how can they then be ensnared into wanting to copy their modes of idol worship? Who will be left to copy? And why would the victorious Israelites want to copy a small group of defeated idol-worshipping losers? Another problem is the use of the word Eicha. As we have seen, Eicha is usually a loaded 'how', a deep, searching, angst-ridden question: how can things be this way? How can I deal with the reality in which I find myself? How can this be? Here, at first glance, eicha seems to be a simple practical question: 'how do the people around me worship their Gods?' There seems to be no deep question here, no sense of existential doubt or struggle. Rather, it looks like a simple, almost anthropological question - what are the customs of the people around us?
To answer the first question - whom are the Jews looking at and imitating if they have destroyed the nations around them? - we must say that, clearly, the Torah assumes that the Israelite conquest of Canaan will not create a gentile-free zone, a totally Jewish Shangri-La, untroubled by challenges from other nations and cultures. In spite of the conquest of the land, there will still be other nations around. In fact, there will be so many other nations around that they will constitute a cultural challenge to the Jewish people. They will be so dominant that the Israelites, even after having defeated the local pagans, will still be tempted to imitate them. This verse recognizes an obvious, basic truth: the Jewish people, even after conquering Israel and settling there, remain in dialogue and interaction with other nations. They remain part of a larger world, a world in which they are a minority.
This fact, perhaps, can help us understand the other problem in this verse, the apparently inappropriate use of the word eicha. When the Jewish people look around them and see the vast non-Jewish world in which they live, they have no choice but to ask the following questions: How do these people worship? How do they understand the world and it's mysteries, and how do they deal with them? They are, after all, the world. How does the world understand the world? These questions are not asked politely, or out of simple curiosity. They are asked from the difficult position of being in a minority, surrounded by a majority culture. Like Moshe's question - how can I do this alone? - or the question of the Jewish people upon entering the land - how can we dispossess the Canaanites, there are so many of them, they are so strong? - or the question that Jeremiah asks at the beginning of Eicha - how can it be that the city of Jerusalem, and the Jewish people, have been so abandoned, made so solitary and alone? - so, too, Jews living in peace, in freedom, look around and ask a different but ultimately similar existential question - how can we be so unlike everyone else? How can we worship differently, believe different things, be so alone in the way we are? Why should we be?
"How do they worship?" is not an academic question, in the realm of cultural studies or comparative religion. It is a question which stems from the depths of Jewish aloneness, from an uncomfortable sense that we are different, and from a natural desire to, ultimately, undo that difference. Just as we ask eicha when we are singled out by our enemies and attacked by them for our Jewishness, so, too, the Jews that Moshe talks about in this week's parsha ask eicha when they single themselves out, and distinguish themselves from the dominant surrounding culture. The existential sense of alone-ness, of unbearable otherness, is essentially the same, whether forced upon you by a Babylonian sword, a Roman spear, a Nazi machine gun, an Arab bomb, or by living peacefully in Monsey, Boro Park, or in theory, if peace ever comes to Israel, as one of five and a half million Jews among tens of millions of Muslims. Just as we are challenged, and made to feel alone and abandoned, by the violence and destruction that others visit upon us, and ask, "how can this be happening?" so, too, we are challenged by the nations with whom we do not fight. This is a different challenge, a challenge which makes us ask not 'why are they doing this to me?' but, rather, 'why am I doing this to me? Instead of defining myself as an eternal other, what can I do to be like them? What can I do to be accepted by them? What can I do to ease, to put down for a while, this burden of differentness, of separateness, of Jewish aloneness?'
Moshe, in this week's parsha, anticipates these questions, and warns us against putting down the Jewish burden, the burden of being a specific people with its own specific history, belief system, traditions and message. The temptation to look around one's self, see what the world is doing, and say "I will do the same, I, too" is great. The challenge that Moshe puts to us is to withstand it, and find within Jewish tradition that which will inspire us to continue to shoulder the burden, and privilege, of Jewish peoplehood in a non-Jewish world.
Rabbi Shimon Felix