Thursday, Apr 11, 2024

Answering the Eicha Question Correctly



I doubt that anyone looks forward to hearing Eicha. It is true that there are some amazing baalei kriah with beautiful voices who can move us and bring us to tears. But it is not like anticipating the suspense of Mordechai and Esther’s mortal dangers, knowing that we will soon sing Shoshanas Yaakov in triumph. Eicha is sad and there’s not much we can do about it. But to quote from the mashgiach, Rav Meir Chodosh, “The sound of Eicha reverberates through time and space. It travels from one end of the universe to the other and from Adam Harishon to the present day.” He goes on to explain that the word Eicha is the same letters as Hashem’s call to Adam, “Ayeka,” meaning, “Where are you?” (Bereishis 3:9).

The mashgiach is relentless. He continues. “Hashem asks each of us, ‘I made you so great that each of you has heels that are bright as the sun (Bava Basra 58b), and where are you now? I gave you angels who roasted meat for you and purified wine for you (Sanhedrin 59b), and where are you now?’”

The demand of Eicha and Ayeka is directed at each of us individually, since we have fallen so precipitously.

The demand of Ayeka recalls the tragic scene of Rav Yochanan ben Zakai who discovers the daughter of Nakdimon ben Gurion groveling for scraps of barley from under the dung of animals (Kesubos 66b). She, the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Klal Yisroel, perhaps the world, has been reduced not only to abject poverty, but to a state lower than the animals. This is us, if not financially, certainly spiritually. As Rav Yochanan ben Zakai drilled into his talmidim, we are but a shadow of our glorious selves and we must restore our grandeur, because it reflects poorly upon our Father and Creator as well.

My own feeling, not to be imposed upon anyone else, is that it reminds me of the words of one of the aging baalei mussar, Rav Elya Lopian. He realized that he had overslept by a few precious minutes and leapt out of bed. The bochur who doubled as the nonagenarian rov’s caregiver soothed his agitated charge. “Rebbe, you had a rough night. Why do have to get up so early today?” Rav Elya was dressed and ready to be brought to the earliest minyan in the yeshiva. “You don’t understand,” he began gently. “I will soon be standing before the Heavenly Tribunal, where they will ask me if I kept every section of the Shulchan Aruch. Imagine if I haven’t even fulfilled its first directive of ‘Arise like a lion to serve your Creator.’”

If we don’t even have a decent answer for the first question of Eicha – “Where are you?” – how we can even face ourselves, let alone a celestial bais din of tzaddikim? The very opening word of this Megillah challenges us to look at ourselves personally, communally and nationally, and notice how far we have fallen from where we have been and, more importantly, where we can be at the present time. But it would be misleading to think that Eicha leaves us feeling depressed or melancholic. Not only do we repeat the last posuk, which yearns for returning to “days as of old,” but the Medrash reveals that this means to the days of Adam before the sin. Furthermore and most importantly, the Medrash promises us that this posuk gives the wonderful tidings that b’yedchem hee – “this is in our hands.” This is wonderful news indeed. Not only is all not hopeless, G-d forbid, but we are assured that we can bring it about. But of course the question is: How?

First of all, let us listen to the hallowed words of Rav Chaim Volozhiner. He poses a powerful question. The posuk (Shemos 38:21) uses the word Mishkon twice at the beginning of Parshas Pekudei. Rashi explains that this is to teach us that the Bais Hamikdosh acted as collateral – a kind of guarantee for us – to survive despite our sins. Rav Chaim asks, “How could Hashem – so to speak – take away our Bais Hamikdosh no matter what we had done? The halacha is that (Devorim 24:6) a creditor may not seize anything that is basic and crucial to the debtor. Rashi adds that this includes even items such as kitchen utensils, since people must eat. Now, Jews recite in the concluding brocha of the haftorah, “Have mercy on Tzion, for it is the source of our life,” which is at least as important as pots and pans. Since Hashem, kevayachol, keeps the Torah, how can He take away “the source of our life”?

Rav Chaim’s answer is the question itself. “The day that we will truly feel that the Bais Hamikdosh is bais chayeinu is the day it will be given back to us. He concludes that this promise is actually explicit in Chazal (Yalkut Shimoni, Eicha 997): “When there will be a generation that yearns for His Kingdom, they will be redeemed immediately.” So easy and yet so seemingly difficult. We know (Shabbos 31a) that when our personal day of judgment comes, we will be asked six questions. The fourth is, “Did you yearn for yeshuah – to be saved?” What exactly does this entail?

The Chofetz Chaim had a loyal meshamesh who emulated his rebbi’s minhag to have a Moshiach garment ready to go when Moshiach arrives. In his case, it was a pair of shiny black shoes. At the end of every day, he would lament to his wife that he had not merited wearing the shoes that day, but “there will always be another day.” Unfortunately, he passed away without wearing those shoes, but he did live with that hope and expectation.

In Cleveland, there lived a holy Jew named Rav Chaim Tzvi Katz who had a packed Moshiach bag ready for the big moment.

These people fulfilled the question of tzipisa l’yeshuah.

But how can we? We’re probably not packing our bags yet. Rav Yankele Galinsky, the beloved Novardoker maggid, related an answer. Rav Naftoli Amsterdam, one of the three major talmidim of Rav Yisroel Salanter, was moving to Eretz Yisroel. He visited the revered rov of Yeushalayim, Rav Shmuel Salant, with a question on his lips. Chazal in Pirkei Avos (1:6 and 16) teach that we must appoint for ourselves a rov. He knew that Rav Shmuel was already deep into his old age, so he didn’t wish to presume burdening him with what he thought might be his many questions. “Please suggest a rov for me,” he requested. Now, Rav Amsterdam had been the rov of several communities in Europe, was known as a tzaddik and gaon, and did not require a rov, but his humility drove him to this request.

Rav Salant’s answer was, “Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld gives a daily shiur in Mishnayos between Mincha and Maariv. Go attend the shiur. If you hear something new, he will become your rov.” The members of the shul were shocked to watch the elderly newcomer enter the shul, finding a place in the back to listen. Indeed, Rav Sonnenfeld gave a profound shiur, answering many ancient questions, resolving many famous enigmas, but to the genius of Rav Amsterdam, none of it was new. Then Rav Yosef Chaim reached the last perek in Sanhedrin, Cheilek, and reviewed the Rambam’s thirteen Ikkrim, foundational teachings. When he mentioned belief in the coming of Moshiach, he added, from the Gemara (Sanhedrin 97a), that “Moshiach will come when he is forgotten (hesech hadaas).”

Now the visitor spoke up for the first time. “How can that possibly happen?” he asked with wonder. “How can anyone ever take their mind and heart off the geulah? What of the mandate of tzipisa l’geulah? What of Shemoneh Esrei itself, where we declare, ‘For we await your salvation every day’?” He went on to prove that our prayers are replete with references to our constant preoccupation with geulah.

Rav Sonnenfeld was not at a loss for an answer. He responded immediately, “If someone would enter the room announcing, ‘What are you all doing here? Moshiach has just arrived!’ what would we be thinking deep in our hearts? ‘Really?’ That is what the Gemara means by hesech hadaas, because if we really thought about Moshiach every moment, we would immediately be on our feet out the door to greet him.”

Rav Amsterdam was full of joy, for he had found his rov. However, concluded Rav Galinsky, “we should work on ourselves to remember that ‘suddenly he will come,’ in a moment.”

Many gedolim have given us tools to make sure that Moshiach is on our lips and in our hearts. Let us make sure that he is always there and then he will surely come swiftly, but not unexpected. The end of Eicha can answer Hashem’s Ayeka question to all of us. Yes, our hearts are with Moshiach and the geulah sheleimah bimeheirah beyomeinu.



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