During the week of Parashat Devarim, we encounter the word eichah three times: in the weekly Torah portion – “How (eichah) can I myself alone bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife;”1 in the ­Haftarah – “How (eichah) has the faithful city become a harlot;”2 and in the reading of Megillat Eichah on Tisha B’Av – “How (eichah) does the city sit solitary.”3

Although eichah itself is a neutral word, and can be used to mean “how” in any context, it has taken on a very specific connotation; it has become an expression of sorrow and pain. In connection with Tisha B’Av, for example, Eichah is a central motif, and there are quite a few kinot that are entirely devoted to elaborating on the meaning of the word.

In this respect, there is a deeper connection between the eichah of Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and they all express the same sorrow and lamentation. The Eichah of Moses is the beginning, the key to the entire matter: “How can I myself alone bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife?” From this original question, there is an inner development over the course of generations that continues for centuries, through the Eichah of Isaiah until the Eichah of Jeremiah.

“Your trouble, your burden, and your strife”

In light of the word eichah's association with mourning and expressions of sorrow, we should try to understand what led Moses to use this key word precisely here.

At the sin of the Golden Calf, for example, Moses certainly had a lot to say. However, one thing he does not say is, “How (eichah) could you have made the calf?” The sin of the Golden Calf was very serious; indeed, our sages expound on the verse, “When I visit, I will visit their sin upon them,”4 that some small portion of all punishment is due to the sin of the Golden Calf.5 Nevertheless, although he takes harsh steps against the calf’s worshipers, Moses does not treat that sin with the same gravity as we find here; he does not regard it as a major problem. So, too, in the case of the sin of the spies, despite its seriousness and its great influence on the Jewish people’s future, Moses does not use the expression eichah.

What, then, bothers Moses here in Parashat Devarim? Our sages say that G‑d had forewarned Moses and Aaron that leadership over the People of Israel would not be easy for them: “He said to them: You should know that they are stubborn and troublesome. Nevertheless, assume leadership over them, even though they may insult you and stone you.”6

The Talmud cites a dispute as to whether the verse, “They would gaze after Moses until he entered his tent,”7 should be interpreted as praiseworthy or derogatory. According to one opinion, the people gazed at Moses because they considered it a privilege to behold him. According to another opinion, however, the people looked at Moses with ill will and said, “Do you see his neck? Do you see his legs, his backside? How does he get so fat? It is all from our money!” When Moses would be late, they would say, “He is busy thinking about us, devising some new plan, some new decree with which to afflict us.” When he would be early, they would say, “He has some family problem – he apparently got into an argument with his wife.”8

Moses was a man whose every act influenced our world and the realm of heaven; G‑d spoke with him face to face, the skin of his face shone with a brilliant light – and yet the people would slander him to his face and behind his back; they would provoke him, falsely accuse him, and quarrel with him. “Your trouble, your burden, and your strife” was part of Moses’ divine service, and he knew it. Though even from the beginning he was not eager to become the leader of the People of Israel, he understood his responsibility and accepted the assignment, knowing full well what he was getting into.

A tzaddik once complained to his Hasidim that he could no longer endure the constant flow of people coming to him and bothering him with all sorts of questions, problems, and stories. One of the Hasidim, a sharp young man, answered him in front of everyone: “Rebbe, return the money.” In other words, if you are a rebbe, you take this upon yourself; if you are not a rebbe, return all the money that was given to you over the years. If you agree to accept responsibility, you receive “your trouble, your burden,” and when there are quarrels, you receive “your strife” as well.

“Myself alone”

What, then, was Moses’ problem here? Why did he sigh and cry out eichah?

The cantillation mark etnachta generally determines where the stress should be placed in a verse. In the verse, “How can I myself alone bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife,” etnachta falls on the words “myself alone (levadi),” and this was the root of Moses’ problem. The problem began with the fact that Moses was alone. What truly ate at him was that all of “your trouble, your burden, and your strife” fell only on him.

Moses did not mean to say that he needed a certain number of attendants, soldiers, and bodyguards at his disposal. Rather, his complaint was that no one else besides him really cared. So, too, when he complained, “Did I conceive this people, did I give birth to them?”9 It was not because he had a hard job. There, too, Moses’ problem was that no one else cared – “I am not able to bear this entire people myself alone.”10

In order to understand the wilderness generation, there is something important to remember: One who is privileged to experience G‑d’s voice – even if it is not His actual voice but a bat kol or an echo of a bat kol – he has merited something that will remain with him throughout his life. Here, an entire nation – men, women, and children – stood and heard G‑d speaking. This is an indelible memory that will never leave these people. Our sages say that the wilderness generation was a generation of knowledge, and that it included many people who were worthy of being prophets.11 Nevertheless, no one except Moses was interested in the momentous challenges of leadership. That generation was not lacking in people of stature, leaders of Israel, but each one was only willing to fulfill his own role. Even those who were appointed leaders of hundreds or leaders of thousands would go to work from eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, punch the clock, and go home. Moses’ dilemma is not that there are problems, but that others do not get involved. They go about their lives and do not feel responsible for what is happening to their own people.

Accordingly, when Joshua said to Moses regarding Eldad and Medad, “My lord, Moses – stop them!”12 and Moses responded, “Are you jealous for my sake?”13 This can be understood as an expression of wonder: Are you truly jealous for my sake? So many people stood there and did nothing, and now Joshua comes and says: “My lord, Moses – stop them!” Can it be that finally there is someone who cares?

This concern shown by Joshua is also what marks him as a candidate who is fit to lead the people after Moses’ death. However, Joshua is also criticized. When he says to Moses, “There is a cry of war in the camp!”14 and Moses replies, “It is not the sound of the victorious; it is not the sound of the defeated; it is the sound of song that I hear,”15 we understand the reply as a kind of reprimand: Here is Joshua, who is destined to be the next leader of Israel, and he does not know what kind of sound this is! Israel’s leader must be able to distinguish whether people are crying or shouting, whether they are celebrating or wailing. Nevertheless, Joshua is chosen as the successor to Moses, the one “who shall go out before them and come in before them”; he is the “man in whom there is spirit.”16 He is chosen because he cares, and that is the decisive factor. Everyone else wants to sit at home in peace; they are not willing to give of themselves for the sake of the Jewish people.

Yitro suggests to Moses that he should search for “men of truth, who hate improper gain,”17 or as Moses himself puts it, “wise and discerning men.”18 The Talmud notes here that Moses had found men who were wise but not discerning.19 But what is the difference between a wise person (chacham), who is easily found, and a discerning person (navon), who is rarer? A wise person can understand things, but a discerning person goes beyond this; he can infer one thing from another. A wise person can be given an order, and he will carry it out properly, whereas a discerning person creates things on his own. It is this latter type of individual that Moses could not find.

Moses laments the fact that he could not find people who would join him in bearing a greater share of responsibility. “Carrying the thickest part of the beam” – a Hebrew idiom meaning to delve into the heart of the matter – derives from a simple metaphor: A tree is generally wide at its base and increasingly narrow as it rises. Some people choose to get at the root of things, to be involved in the essence, at the point where the trunk is thick, whereas others prefer to approach the tree where the trunk is thin. Moses bewails the fact that, in the end, there is no one else who will accompany him as he enters the thick of the crisis; he is left by himself.

To a great extent, Moses’ problem in the wilderness, and Israel’s problem afterward as well, is that people are not proactive in involving themselves in things, but instead wait for things to be done for them.

Moses was a great leader, and as long as he was alive, things held together for the People of Israel. Maimonides explains that the difference between Moses and all the other prophets was that Moses could approach G‑d with any question he might have had: “Stand by, and I will hear what instructions G‑d gives about your case.”20 And yet, his lofty level notwithstanding, he could genuinely say to the people, “I still live in your midst.”21 22

But what happens after Moses dies, in Joshua’s time and afterward? At first, monumental events were still occurring, and the emotional excitement was high, but soon enough everything fell apart. After the Elders, who outlived Joshua, also died, everyone began to practice idolatry. At first glance, this seems incredible, since there had already been several generations of education in Torah and Judaism in one form or another. The problem was that people were willing to be recipients but not creators, an unsustainable dynamic for maintaining a positive relationship with G‑d.

Confirmed and accepted

When one longs for and deeply identifies with something, there may be ups and downs, but he will continue to pursue it for as long as he is able. Here, however, there is an entire people that is continually in need of support, motivation, and prodding. The force of inertia can only move it forward for so long; eventually the force peters out.

The deterioration continues and even becomes more acute, from the time of Moses until Jeremiah’s time. From a historical standpoint, throughout this period the Jewish community appears to be apathetic toward G‑d. The question is not how many wicked people and how many righteous people there are – there will always be a significant number of people in each category. The question is whether there are people who are creative, who take the initiative, who can lead. Throughout this whole period, the impression is that the people are merely passive beings; only sporadically do we find more active, self-motivated individuals.

Each time the name of another king is listed in the book of Kings, it is accompanied by a short summary of the nature of the king’s reign. This summary generally reads either, “And he did what was evil in the eyes of G‑d,” or, “And he did what was good in the eyes of G‑d.” The question that immediately arises is: What about the entire community? What did everyone else do? According to Tanach, King Uzziyahu had an army of over 300,000 soldiers.23 What did these soldiers all think? The Jewish people was ruled by kings like the wicked Menasheh, on the one hand, or Hezekiah, who was fit to be the Messiah, on the other – and the public seemed to be indifferent to this contrast. How can this be? The answer is that the people are passive and not active; they do not show drive but are driven. This reality only changed during the time of Jeremiah.

Only at the start of the Second Temple period, beginning with Ezra and Nehemiah, can one detect a change, a new beginning. Although there are prophets, political leaders, and others who are concerned and take action, now, for the first time, there is a Jewish community that is not dependent on any one of these individuals. In the covenant that appears in Nehemiah 10, what stands out is that it is written in the plural. Throughout the covenant, a recurring motif appears: “We have taken upon ourselves.” The covenant is not built on one person who dictates it; the signatures of many people are affixed to it. Finally, the Jewish ­community decides its own fate and acts on its own initiative.

During this period, the structure of the Jewish people was essentially transformed. “The Jews confirmed and accepted upon themselves and their descendants” is a structure entirely different from the decision or undertaking of one individual. When Haman decreed that the Jews should be exterminated, the Jewish people decided as a community to die rather than submit, give up their Judaism, and assimilate among the non-Jews. Unlike the coercion and pressure on the Jewish people from above to fulfill the Torah in the wilderness period, and unlike the passivity that characterized the people from the time of Moses, here the people begin to be independent.

“How has the faithful city become a harlot?”

This explains the connection between “How can I myself alone bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife?” which would seem to be a relatively minor complaint, and Isaiah’s harsh accusation, “How has the faithful city become a harlot!”24 There is a real connection between the two, because it may very well be that the city “in which righteousness once lodged, but now murderers”25 is this way precisely because of the situation in Moses’ time.

A country cannot enforce a just social order from above; it is not enough to have a king and a police force. They can punish and coerce, but these tools alone will not be effective for long. When “everyone loves bribes and pursues payments,”26 no legal system will work. In a civilized society, if a murderer is on the loose, he will inevitably be caught, because the public will not tolerate him. When no one tolerates him, when such a person is totally unacceptable, he will be unable to survive. Conversely, when there is a platform for wickedness and injustice in the midst of a society, then no matter what the state institutions do or legislate, it will not help change the face of that society.

That is exactly the situation that Isaiah describes. Not everyone took bribes; presumably, there were a few corrupt Priests, a few officials who sought bribes, and a few false prophets. The question is how the people as a whole reacts to this. Apparently, no one was willing to get involved and confront the problem. To be sure, no one likes the corrupt regime – everyone knows that corruption is bad for the nation in the long run – but no one goes out of his way to do something about it. No one rocks the boat and no one protests. As a result, the reality of one form of corruption after another can be expected.

When there is no one whose heart – and not just his kippah – has been touched by the fear of G‑d, and there is no activism from within, society sinks lower and lower. Sodom is an extreme example of this, and in fact, Isaiah turns to the People of Israel and tells them that they are “chiefs of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah.”27 What fundamentally characterized society in Sodom? Their basic law was: “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.”28 Everyone has his own house and his own possessions; “You don’t interfere in my business, and I won’t interfere in your business.” Since these are the laws of the country, when one goes out of one’s way to act righteously, to do justice – this is a serious crime, because it interferes with the natural order that the people of Sodom held to.

When “How can I myself alone bear” develops and branches out, it is only a matter of time until its extreme extension – “How has she become a harlot” – comes into fruition as well. This is also the explanation for the analogy to a harlot: A woman who goes about recklessly and is careless about her relationships has a good chance of degenerating and becoming a harlot.

“How does the city sit solitary?”

“How does the city sit solitary”29 is the extreme extension of “How can I myself alone bear.” Lack of involvement and lack of real interest in things progressively increase over time. At first, one does not love the good; then he does not hate the evil. Then he becomes apathetic to the evil; as time goes on, he is willing to accept it tacitly, and eventually he is even willing to agree to it outright. He begins to cooperate with it, then he commits a transgression in practice, then he initiates a transgression, and finally he becomes a leader of transgressors. As we have stated, from apathy to harlot takes a while, but ultimately that stage, too, is reached. After the moral degeneration come the social and political degeneration, the final stage of that same process. If no one cares, there can be no national community, no unity, no agreements; only “How does the city sit solitary.”

The Midrash comments on the verse, “Her leaders were like harts,”30 that just as when it is intensely hot, harts turn their faces one beneath the other, so the great men of Israel would see a transgression committed but turn their faces away from it.”31 The same notion is repeated in the Talmud: “Just as the hart, the head of one is at the side of the other’s tail, so Israel of that generation hid their faces in the earth and did not rebuke each other.”32 Even the righteous among the people do not want to get involved, instead insisting on keeping their heads down; what other people do is none of their concern.

Moses said wistfully, “Would that all of G‑d’s people were prophets, that G‑d would put His spirit upon them.”33 This was not a wish for every person to truly receive the spark of prophecy, but a desire that the entire People of Israel should become involved in what is happening.

It stands to reason that the disaster of the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile was precisely what reversed and cured the decline, which began with the Eichah of Moses and ended with that of Jeremiah; for only then did the understanding sink in that we have nothing to rely on but the personal involvement of each one of us.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, when Moses cried out, “Whoever is for G‑d, join me,”34 only the Levites answered his call – a rather small group, all of whom were members of Moses’ family. By contrast, when Cyrus said, “Whoever among you of all His people…let him go up”35 – not as an order but merely as a statement granting permission for people to go up on their own initiative – a large congregation went up, without anyone pushing them to do so, and without a leader standing in front, urging them on.

The power to change

When one is self-motivated, one has the power to accomplish things and bring about change. When one gets into something with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul, and with all one’s might, this has real power that constantly grows stronger. When one does something for trivial, selfish reasons, the result, too, will reflect this, even if it is a matter that relates to Torah. As a Jewish leader once remarked, “Why do the maskilim win? Because they do their falsehood truly, whereas we do our truth falsely.”

The change that has come about since the period of “How does the city sit solitary” is an instructive lesson that we learned from exile. It is the awareness that when one person is left alone to deal with everything, this is a situation that leads to disaster. There is only one way out of this predicament: for every person to get involved. Only when we adopt this attitude will new opportunities begin to arise.