Let My People Know

"How could the order of a whole world be shattered?"

This week, in an effort to continue exploring some of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s teachings related to the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av, and to Tisha b’Av itself, I will be posting excerpts from an essay written by Rabbi Steinsaltz on The Book of Lamentations, which itself was written, according to tradition, by the prophet Jeremiah and read in the synagogue of the evening of Tisha b’Av.

Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:

“Three of the chapters in the Book of Lamentations begin with the word How.

And quite justifiably the book as a whole is called Ekhah (How), not only because it is the opening word, but because it is the key word throughout.

There is grief and sorrow in the Book of Lamentations, weeping and moaning—but more than all else there is a series of questions. These questions are genuine queries, even though they sometimes seem like rhetorical questions.

They are queries that cry out for the light of understanding—and thereby beg for some sort of solution.

There is enormous pain in these questions, but they are not vengeful cries of defiance and challenge.

Although they are not given to be answered within the body of the book, the questions provoke a genuine search to know and clarify the reasons for the horrors, to comprehend their significance, and even to find a way to solve the problem, or to get out of the impasse.

Presenting the matter in the form of a question in itself produces a feeling of loss and pain.

Ekhah expresses the essence of the incredulous—“How could the order of a whole world be shattered and a new reality take its place?”

When the sorrow and agony somehow become a part of consciousness, when the facts of a blood curdling reality become tolerable to one’s mind, it means that the greatest shock of the catastrophe has passed.

A horrible knowledge of the worst kind can be borne by man with all its pain, once he is able to react to it in some rational manner.

But there is a stage (whether temporary or lasting) in which the experience and its suffering are not only unbearably painful but are not even capable of being grasped by the mind.

It is a wild nightmare, in which no stated facts can convince one of its existential actuality.

The question, “How can this happen?” does not seek to know the mechanism of the disaster, in terms of its causes and development.

The inquiry does not try to analyze or comprehend it in military or political terms; it is not a request for historic or even moral explanation.

The question is a very much more profound and urgent cry: “How can such a thing be?”

–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
From “The Lamentations of Jeremiah” in On Being Free by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz