“How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! She who was Queen among the provinces has now become a slave.”
And so begins Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, read tonight on Tisha B’av, written by the prophet Jeremiah sometime after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE.
“The Virus Turns Midtown Into a Ghost Town, Causing an Economic Crisis: 7,500 workers are missing from a famous building. A food cart sells 10 hot dogs a day. The virus’s effect on one block could be an omen for the city’s future.”
And so wrote The New York Times, on July 26, 2020, only three days ago. Is Eichah in front of us again? Do we have a new Jeremiah, prophesying? Is Dr. Fauci our new Jeremiah?
From 1955 to 1964 of our modern era, another prophet of our time, who lived very close to us here in the Hudson Valley, Pete Seeger, perfected his lyrics where he cried out, “Where have all the flowers gone?” Was this another Eichah we refused to hear?
The plight of the prophet is to cry out and maybe, just maybe, a few will hear, maybe a few of those who hear will listen, and maybe a few of those who listen will do something positive and peaceful. Our theology, from the midrash of the receiving of the Torah, teaches us to do, and, we pray, along the path of doing, we might be also listening and hearing and understanding what we are supposed to do and why we are supposed to do it.
Chabad tells us that Eichah is a plaintive, screaming, almost rhetorical HOW?? Sort of like the plaintive, screaming, wailing. almost rhetorical WHY?? that disaster chaplains respond to after trauma.
Chabad tells us that only three times in our scriptures do we see this mysterious wail of Eichah.
The first was the cry of 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.
The second was 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. “How has the faithful city become a harlot! It was full of justice, righteousness dwelled there, and now murderers.”
The third use of the word is, of course, Jeremiah, here, who opens the book of Eicha 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.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz links these three uses of Eichah with the very strong and poignant word levadi, alone. As a mathematician at my core, I love the elegance in simplicity. Moses needed only three words to communicate this elegance: “Eicha esa levadi” “How shall I bear it alone?” To paraphrase and excerpt from Rabbi Steinsaltz, “Why am I alone in worrying? … “Why are you indifferent to the troubles of your people when they do not directly affect you?” Before COVID-19, loneliness, being alone, was already an epidemic of our time.
Our ethics teaches us “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bezeh.” “All Jews are responsible for one another.” An analogous ethic of our time is wearing a mask makes us responsible for one another.
How and why do so many refuse to listen, refuse to hear today’s prophets screaming Eichah to us?
Where have all the flowers gone, indeed, we ask? With not enough to nurture them in our cities, flowers are replaced by weeds. Eichah, Eichah we are screaming now. HOW and WHY are the questions we are screaming, but are the solutions only being whispered?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.