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The Three Eichas and the Rebbe’s Example

The Three Eichas and the Rebbe’s Example

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Artwork by Esther Touson.
Artwork by Esther Touson.

“There are three who prophesied with the word ‘eicha’” the Midrash tells us.Literally, the word “eicha” means “how,” but it appears only three times in the scriptures. Three Jewish prophets opened their hearts to their beloved nation using this mysterious word.

The first was Moses. “Eicha esa levadi torhakhem u’masa’akhem ve’rivkhem?” “How can I alone bear your problems, and your burdens, and your quarrels?” Moses asks the Jewish nation as they wander in the desert.1

The second to use the term was the great prophet Isaiah, who foresaw the horrible moral decay of the Jewish population in Israel a full generation before the destruction of the first Temple. “Eicha hayta le-zonah kiriah ne’emanah, m’leaiati mishpat zedek yalin bah v’ata meratzhim” he asked.2How has the faithful city become a harlot! It was full of justice, righteousness dwelled there, and now murderers.”

The third prophet who uses the word is, of course, Jeremiah, who opens the book of Eicha3 with “Eicha yashva badad, ha’ir rabati am” “How does the city that was full of people sit desolate.“ Jeremiah, the prophet of tragedy, cannot reconcile himself to his vision of a Jerusalem destroyed in Nebuchadnezzar’s flames.

The Midrash notes that “Moses saw Israel in its peaceful state, and said ’How can I bear it alone?’ Isaiah saw it in its decadence, and said ’How has it become a harlot?’ Jeremiah saw it in its destruction and said ’How did it become desolate?’”

Yet the question remains; why did all three choose to use the same unusual term? Clearly the Midrash is trying to tell us that this is no coincidence. And indeed the words of all three prophets are interconnected.

Howling Against Indifference

Rabbi Adin Even Yisroel Steinsaltz teaches that in order to understand the connection, we must understand the basis of Moses’ complaint when he says, “Eicha esa levadi” “How shall I bear it alone?” Moses was not bemoaning the fact that he had to work hard and couldn’t make time for a vacation. What troubled Moses was the tragic fact that he alone (levadi) must bear the burden of the Jewish nation; “Why is no one else troubled by what is happening with each individual member of our nation?” he was asking, “Why am I the only one who loses sleep because of the troubles of our People!?”

There may indeed be many righteous people, Torah scholars, Jewish luminaries, kabbalists and miracle workers. And, yet, Moses laments, the burden of ‘Klal Yisrael’ falls on my shoulders alone! Everyone is preoccupied day and night with their own lives, their own personal concerns. Why am I alone in worrying about what goes on in the heart of a lost Jew who finds himself on a dark street in an unknown place? Why are you indifferent to the troubles of your people when they do not directly affect you?

And so, Rabbi Steinsaltz explains, when there comes a time of “levadi,” when there is but one person who cares, one person who cannot sleep because of his concern for his nation, then the Jewish people is in grave danger. It is the incipient stage of total moral collapse.

When Jews become indifferent to what is going on in their own communities, it is only a matter of time before the “faithful city” Jerusalem deteriorates and becomes “a harlot.”

And a city that once overflowed with “tzedakah” – righteousness – becomes the playground of murderers. And, finally, the inevitable dénouement, the third “eicha”: “How does the city that was full of people sit desolate.”

Rebbe of a Nation

As I reflect on this Midrash, I cannot help thinking of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory. The Rebbe concerned himself deeply with the fate of Jews in every corner of the world–communities of Jews, and individual Jews: man, woman and child. It would be difficult to find another Jewish leader who had such a tangible and dramatic impact on virtually every Jewish community on the globe, someone who was so intimately involved with the circumstances of so many individual Jews everywhere.

The Rebbe worked hard so that Jews in India should have a rabbi, and that Jews in Afghanistan should have a mikvah. It mattered greatly to him that Jews in Greenland have matzah for Passover and that Jewish children in Peru have a day school.

The Rebbe spearheaded the rescue of Iranian Jewry in 1979 and made sure indigent Jews would have what to eat. He would not rest until he was certain that Jews in Odessa had a mohel, and that soldiers in the IDF are served kosher food.

It made no difference to him if the Jew was chassidic or not, Ashekanazi or Sefardi, religiously observant or not. To the Rebbe every Jew was a Divine gem; a G‑dly diamond to be cherished and polished, protected and treasured.

It was vitally important to the Rebbe that the world-renowned scholar, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik should publish the writings of his grandfather, Reb Chaim Brisker. It mattered to him that Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin should complete his monumental Encyclopedia of the Talmud. He encouraged the Belzer Rebbe to publish the writings of all previous Belzer Rebbes, and he urged the Boyaner Rebbe to assume the mantle of leadership. It mattered to him that Jews’ College in London should not shut its doors, and that Jews should have their own Chapel at West Point in the ‘50s.

The Rebbe influenced Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs to subsidize schools for religious children with learning disabilities, and Jewish psychologists to develop meditation techniques free of the idolatrous elements that are integral to Far Eastern mediation practices. He rescued Torah Umesorah’s youth journal, Olamanu, so that it continued to be published without interruption.

The Rebbe never ceased to fight for the safety of the Jewish people in the Holy Land, working tirelessly to influence Israeli leaders to end the terrible mistakes that they were making in their appeasement of their enemies, which, he predicted, would cause more violence and bloodshed.

Above all, the Lubavitcher Rebbe could not sleep because the Jewish People still wander in a dark and confusing exile, and Moshiach has yet to come.

There is a wonderful Modern Hebrew word, “ichpatiyut” (a profound, abiding concern). The Rebbe personified ichpatiyut par excellence. No circumstance concerning an individual Jew, let alone Judaism, was outside the Rebbe’s purview and personal involvement. He was committed to there never being a repeat of “How has the faithful city become a harlot!” His greatest ambition was to exchange Jeremiah’s “How does the city that was full of people sit desolate?” for the same prophet’s prediction “There will yet be heard in the cities of Judah and the street of Jerusalem the sound of merriment and the sound of joy, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.”

It would be no exaggeration to state that the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught every Jew what it means to care. For the Rebbe could not accept the condition of “levadi.” His message was: Each of us is a leader. Each of us must care. All of us are empowered to bring healing to an aching world.

The Great Believer

No less noteworthy than his concern for the Jewish People, was the Rebbe’s faith in the Jewish People. The Rebbe’s absolute faith in the G‑dly creativity of Jews, as a people and as individuals, was remarkable. He believed, body and soul, in the neshama, the soul of each Jew. He would never tire of declaring that “the Jewish soul of Israel is alive and awake, all it needs is a tickle.”

The Rebbe once asked Rabbi David Hollander (a prominent Orthodox rabbi and prolific writer), how Elijah the Prophet could say to the Jewish People: How long will you continue lurching between two options? If the L‑rd is G‑d, follow Him, and if it s Baal then follow him?”4 How can a prophet offer his people the option of serving an idol?” he asked. “Wasn’t Elijah afraid the Jews would respond by saying, ’You’re right, we will start serving Baal’”?

The Rebbe explained that Elijah knew very well that when push comes to shove, a Jew will declare “Hashem Hu haElokim!” (Hashem is the G‑d)!

It was with this ironclad faith in the Jewish People that the Rebbe took an entire generation of Jews who were lurching between conflicting paths, and gave them the pride to shout in the streets “Hashem Hu haElokim.

May each of us take our inspiration from the Rebbe and do our part to reverse the three Eicha’s.5

Footnotes
4.

I Kings 41:18.

5.

Translated from Yiddish by JJ Gross.

Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson is editor of Algemeiner.com, a website of Jewish news and commentary in English and Yiddish. Rabbi Jacobson is also a popular and widely sought speaker on chassidic teachings, and the author of the tape series “A Tale of Two Souls.”
Esther Touson is an artist whose style is a return to the most naturalistic image. More of her artwork can be seen on her website.
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