Tisha Bav: Using our eyes as well as our mouth
Hannah Abrams studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum 2014-15, and is now learning in the Advanced Halakha Institute, Hilkhata, at Matan. She is also teaching in seminaries in Jerusalem.
Megillat Eicha takes us deep into the world of despair. We cry out to Hashem, with a hopeless cry:
“Why do You forget us forever, why do You so long forsake us?” (Eicha, 5:20)
The prophet Yirmiyahu, author of Eicha, speaks from the heart. His pain and anguish give him license to ask searing questions which seem to throw our orderly world of religious faith and practice upside-down. Yirmiyahu’s example is followed by the poets who came after him. Eliezer HaKalir asks in Kinnah 13:
“Where is the promise of “so shall your offspring be”
which you assured to Avraham?…
Why, O God, do you forever reject me?
This despair is the focal theme of Tisha b’Av, which poses two jarring theological questions:
- Why was our punishment so much greater than we seemed to deserve?
- Did we still have a relationship with Hashem? It seems like Hashem no longer wanted a relationship with us.
To answer these questions, let us take a step back and point out a curious fact about Megillat Eicha.
Almost every perek is alphabetical, with one exception to the pattern ‒ the “פ” comes before the “ע”. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 104b quotes Rava asking this very question: why does the “פ” precede the “ע”?
The answer is that just like the meraglim, the author of eicha is speaking with his mouth (פה) before looking with his eye (עין).
What does it mean to use your mouth before you use your eyes? Rabbi Hayyim Angel teaches that the eyes represent your ability to see things in their broader perspective, to reflect on them rationally. Without the perspective that the eyes provide, the mouth is a mere conduit for your heart, for your raw emotions.
Eicha, therefore, is a book written primarily with the mouth, rather than the eyes. It takes us into the deep emotional struggle of tragedy without really trying to temper our feelings with reason.
This is the function of the haftarot surrounding Tisha b’Av. They act as our eyes, contextualizing our despair.
The first three haftarot, the haftarot of rebuke (“תלת דפורענותא”), are there to answer our first theological question – what did we do to deserve this tragedy?
They focus on the sins of Bnei Yisrael leading up to the churban. In the haftorah called “Chazon,” Yeshayahu focuses on the clear justice behind sin and punishment:
:יט) אִם תֹּאב֖וּ וּשְׁמַעְתֶּ֑ם ט֥וּב הָאָ֖רֶץ תֹּאכֵֽלוּ
:כ) וְאִם תְּמָֽאֲנ֖וּ וּמְרִיתֶ֑ם חֶ֣רֶב תְּאֻכְּל֔וּ כִּ֛י פִּ֥י ה’ דִּבֵּֽר
:כא) אֵיכָה֙ הָֽיְתָ֣ה לְזוֹנָ֔ה קִרְיָ֖ה נֶֽאֱמָנָ֑ה מְלֵֽאֲתִ֣י מִשְׁפָּ֔ט צֶ֛דֶק יָלִ֥ין בָּ֖הּ וְעַתָּ֥ה מְרַצְּחִֽים
19) If you be willing and obey, you shall eat the best of the land
20) But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword, for the mouth of the Lord spoke.
21) How has she become a harlot? A faithful city, full of justice, in which righteousness would lodge. Now there are murderers.
Here, the word “eichah” is not directed at Hashem, as it is in Megillat Eicha, asking Him how he could punish us so severely.
Here, it is turned against the Jewish people – how could you sin against Hashem? How could you contaminate the beautiful city of Yerushalayim with your crimes?
The haftorah emphasises the divine justice of the relationship between sin and punishment in a logical, rational way. If you sin, you will be punished.
The seven haftarot after Tisha b’Av, the haftarot of consolation (“שבע דנחמתא”), are there to answer our second theological question – did Hashem really desert us?
These haftarot give us a framework for understanding our relationship with Hashem even after experiencing such a tragedy.
The Abudraham frames these haftarot as a conversation between Bnei Yisrael and Hashem, taking as his starting point the first lines of each of the haftarot.
Hashem begins with the words “נחמו נחמו עמי,” “comfort, comfort my people.”
Bnei Yisrael respond with “‘ותאמר ציון עזבני ה,” “and Zion says, Hashem has abandoned me.” Bnei Yisrael need more to convince them that Hashem is really still with them.
There follow the next four haftarot in which Hashem persuades Bnei Yisrael that He really is there to be reconciled with them.
Finally, Bnei Yisrael respond, “שוש אשיש בה” “I will greatly rejoice in Hashem.” They have reunited with Hashem and have something to celebrate!
This rebuilding of a relationship is not easy; it is a long process. However with patience and understanding, we can return to Hashem and more than that, realise that He was always there for us.
We take the relatively serious step of separating the haftorah from the theme of the parshah for 10 consecutive weeks. Why?
We need space to use our eyes, to experience the tragedy of Tisha b’Av in perspective. Although these haftarot should not take away from our feelings of despair and grief on the day of Tisha b’Av itself, they will help us to recover our relationship with Hashem after Tisha b’Av has passed.