Alas, she has become a harlot, The faithful city that was filled with justice, Where righteousness dwelt—but now murderers (Isaiah 1:21; JPS).
Every year, we read Parashat D’varim as we approach Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of our liturgical calendar and the one on which we are reminded that our Temple—the symbol of our unity and our access to God’s presence—was destroyed on account of our baseless hatred for one another. This year, I can’t help but think about the baseless hatred that still suffuses our American scene: racism, antisemitism, misogyny and economic exploitation, to mention only a few. No less distressing is the apparently compulsive repetition of behaviors that are constant reminders of that hatred: too many “Karens” calling the cops on people for being Black while bird watching (Christian Cooper); too many “Kens” reaching for their high-power firearms to shoot unarmed Black joggers (Ahmaud Arbery); too many police officers kneeling on the necks of Black men (George Floyd). Eikha! (Alas!), as begins the Scroll of Lamentations that we read on Tisha B’Av.
As befits the parasha we read in such a mournful period, it begins in a very dark place. The Israelites have come to the end of their 40-year journey through the “great and fearful wilderness” that saw the death of an entire generation, the Israelites who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea and stood together at Sinai (Deuteronomy 1:19; Robert Alter’s translation). Despite these momentous moments of connection with God, the Exodus generation complained endlessly that God had taken them out of Egypt only to have them die in the desert. It turns out that was true (whether we end up blaming God or the people themselves for that outcome). Eikha indeed.
Rashi picks up on the mournful valence of this moment in his gloss to Deuteronomy 1:1, “These are the words”:
Because these are words of reproof and Moses is enumerating here all the places where they provoked God to anger, Moses therefore suppresses the stories, referring to them only by allusion—to the places where they occurred—out of regard for Israel (translation based on A.M. Silberman).
Rashi, following Sifrei, proceeds to assign sinful grumbling to each of the places Moses mentions in the text, which results in a numbing repetition of Israel’s main complaint: God brought us into the desert to kill us; this is not liberation, it is murder. At first, God’s response to these grumblings is indulgent—God seems to understand that even though life in Egypt was difficult, it was predictable: there were well-established rules, ample food and work to do. In the desert, the rules were all new (and confusing), food insecurity was rife and there was nothing to do, apparently, besides wandering around and worrying. However, as the story progresses from the Book of Exodus to the Book of Numbers, God’s reaction evolves and God waxes violently angry in the face of Israel’s persistent grumblings, sending plagues, poisonous serpents, earthquakes and more plagues.
From this perspective, the pairing of Parashat D’varim and Tisha B’Av is more than a calendrical coincidence. Not only does Moses utter the word eikha when he acknowledges his inability to manage the people on his own (1:12); he also chooses, appropriately, the narrative of the spies to explain why the Exodus generation would not enter the Promised Land:
And you did not want to go up and you rebelled against the word of the Lord your God. And you grumbled in your tents and said, “In the Lord’s hatred of us He took us out of the land of Egypt to give us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us” …And the Lord heard the sound of your words and He was furious and swore, saying, “Not a man of these men, this evil generation, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers…” (1:26-27, 34-35; Alter’s translation).
The refrain still has not changed—despite growing evidence that this line of kvetch is no longer acceptable to God, the Israelites persist in repeating it—and, presumably, believing it. God gives up and decides to allow the Israelites’ complaint to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In his gloss on verse 27, Rashi picks up on the word hatred (sina) and, quoting Sifrei, demurs:
[But] God loved you, and you hated God. A common proverb says: “What is in your own mind about your friend is, [you imagine], what is in his mind about you” (translation based on Silberman).
This human tendency, which today we call projection, is often automatic: a reflexive defense against our own hostility and fear, which we assign to the other party. Only through self-awareness and, often, gentle coaching from friends and therapists, can we guard against this emotional violence.
Rashi, like Sifrei before him, clearly understood this dynamic in a way that neither God nor the Israelites were able to articulate in the story, and this lack of understanding, this compulsive drive to attribute hatred and evil to the other, led to the terrible punishment of an entire generation. I am not trying to make any simple equation between the Israelites and our own society, but I do find something resonant in the way they seem to resist—and to resist effectively—Moses and God’s attempt to bring them to the Promised Land. We too have our “promised land” of an egalitarian society, but as we struggle collectively to get there, we see—perhaps because we are increasingly sensitized to it—more and more violent resistance.
This resistance to God’s message of justice and righteousness is at the core of Isaiah’s “eikha.” He laments that the city that was once the seat of justice is now filled with murderers. I cannot imagine a more potent articulation of our reality today, when too many of our officers of the law, whether police, prosecutors or legislators, descend to the oppression and murder of Black people. We Americans are both the Black people being murdered and the officers, of all skin colors, doing the killing: we are killing ourselves. To imagine that our cities were ever filled with justice and righteousness is no longer possible; we need to face the corruption that Isaiah denounces. Only when we, individually and collectively, have done what we need to do, as Jeremiah suggests, to “remove your abominations from the presence of God” (4:1), will we be able to imagine a world in which we do not repeat the depredations of baseless hatred.
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