By Rabbi Sara Rich
It’s unfortunate, but sometimes we suffer from too much of a good thing. This is the case for Moses, as he retells it in this week’s Torah Portion, Devarim, the first in the book of Deuteronomy. He recounts the journey of the Israelites, from Egypt to the Promised Land, and shares in quick succession how richly God blesses the Israelites, and how difficult the Israelites are for Moses to handle.
“The Eternal your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky. May the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousandfold, and bless you as God promised you. How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deut. 1:10-12)
You would expect him to linger for a while on the blessings, but the very mention of how much the Israelites have grown as a people leads him directly into a lament on how exhausting it is to be their leader. The Medieval commentator Rashi elaborates on Moses’ complaint, writing that when Moses says “the trouble of you” he means the way that the Israelites delay legal proceedings that are not going in their favor, that “the burden” refers to the lack of respect that they showed to leaders, and “the bickering” is exactly what it sounds like – they fought all the time.
Another Midrash (rabbinic lore) adds a surprising dimension to Moses’ frustration. Moses begins his complaint with the word “Eicha” – best translated in this case as “How?!” and which can also mean a despairing single-word sentence: “Alas!” Eicha is the name of the book of Lamentations, which is read this coming Saturday night in observance of Tisha b’Av – the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple as well as other tragedies in Jewish history. In addition to appearing in Deuteronomy and in Lamentations, the word “Eicha” appears a third time in the book of Isaiah, when he speaks against the sins of the Israelites. The Midrash explains that in the first appearance of the word Eicha, Moses sees the Israelites in a state of peace, in the second occurrence Isaiah observes them sinning, and in Lamentations they are in a state of disgrace (Eicha Rabbati). The three occurrences of the word are linked in a chronological vector from splendor to shame.
But there is a puzzling element here. If Moses is seeing the Israelites at the height of their glory, then why is he lamenting about how difficult they are and how overburdened he feels in his role? He doesn’t sound like he is witnessing something so wonderful!
Or perhaps, that is just the problem. Moses sees so much potential for peace and for blessing amongst the Israelites, but he sees how they fall short. Moses’ lament comes shortly after the Exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites have been given their freedom and the opportunity to enter into covenant with God. They are offered blessing after blessing, and yet they struggle to live in harmony with one another. They rebel against authority and quarrel amongst themselves. Moses is in a deeply intimate relationship with God and sees the bigger picture of what the Israelites could attain, and to see them jeopardize their future is overwhelming for him.
We have all been in Moses’ shoes, when we see someone with great potential who fails to live up to it, either by lack of commitment or through making poor choices. It is far more frustrating to witness this failure than to encounter someone without that potential who acts in the same way. Disappointment is an emotional burden that can bring us great sorrow, that can lead us to cry out, “Eicha!” Although like Moses, our frustration might stay with us, we can learn from his example in Deuteronomy. Before launching into his complaint, he reminds the Israelites how blessed they are, and prays that God will continue to bless them. Moses praises the Israelites, and assures them that they are valued and cherished. We too should balance our critique with praise and affirmation. Even when we feel disappointed, we have the opportunity to help lift someone up by reminding them of their worth, their finest qualities, and the ways that they bring blessing into our lives.
Rabbi Sara Rich is the Executive Director at Hillel of Buffalo