The Edythe Benjamin, חיה בת שלמה beloved mother of Barbara Hanus,,Rosh Hodesh Av Torah Essay by Emma Katz.
Hashiveinu Hashem Eilecha V’Nashuva: What do we want to return to in Megillat Eicha?
In just a number of days, on Tisha B’Av, we will read Megillat Eicha. Eicha is a book of biblical poetry, with no characters and no plot.
The author in Eicha is notably absent, allowing it to remain the story of every person in the nation. It is a human story of catastrophe that could be about anyone, and is about everyone. The lack of plot gives a sense of disarray.
Eicha seems to be entirely negative until the second to last verse in the book:
(כ) לָ֤מָּה לָנֶ֙צַח֙ תִּשְׁכָּחֵ֔נוּ תַּֽעַזְבֵ֖נוּ לְאֹ֥רֶךְ יָמִֽים׃ (כא) הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יי ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ ונשוב [וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה] חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם׃ (כב) כִּ֚י אִם־מָאֹ֣ס מְאַסְתָּ֔נוּ קָצַ֥פְתָּ עָלֵ֖ינוּ עַד־מְאֹֽד׃
(20) Why have You forgotten us utterly, Forsaken us for all time? (21) Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old! (22) For truly, You have rejected us, Bitterly raged against us. Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old
Verse 21 does not seem to match those that came before or the one that follows. Rashi states that we repeat this pasuk after the last pasuk in the sefer in order that the book should end on a positive note. This pasuk of “hashiveinu” is quoted often in the liturgy. We read it every Shabbat morning as the Torah is returned to the Aron Kodesh and yet again at the climax of Maariv on Yom Kippur eve. Why is this pasuk so important, that it should be quoted so often at significant points in prayer? To understand the significance, one must first understand what is being requested.
The Midrash Lekach Tov, as well as the Ibn Ezra explain this pasuk as a desire to return to serving G-d in the rebuilt Jerusalem just as we served in the Temple in the past. However, the Midrash in Eicha Rabba has a different understanding:
חדש ימינו כקדם, כאדם הראשון כמד”א (בראשית ג’) ויגרש את האדם וישכן מקדם לגן עדן…
“Renew our days as of old”: Like the first human being, as it is written: “He drove the man out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden [the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword to guard the way to the tree of life]” (Gen 3:24). He drove the man out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.
There is an understanding in Eicha Rabba, based on the use of the word “Kedem” in our pasuk, as well as in the creation story, that “chadesh yameinu k’kedem” is a request to G-d to return us to the days of Adam Ha’Rishon. Why would Eicha conclude with a request to return to the days of creation? The Sefer Shev Shmat’ta, a work on Talmudic logic and methodology by R. Aryeh Leib HaCohen Heller, brings an insightful answer to this question. It states that G-d created man as an infinite being who would last forever. However, when Adam sinned, this godliness left him and he became a finite creature subject to mortality. When Adam then repented, he in essence recreated himself as a godly being, in partnership with G-d. When a person does teshuva, G-d reinstates within him an element of internal godliness the “tzelem Elokim”, allowing the person to totally return back to Hashem.
Based on this understanding, the verse at the end of Eicha is asking Hashem to help us achieve the same quality of teshuva and godliness that Adam achieved. However, we know that we are not yet at that lofty point at the end of Eicha. We are still in a very low and lonely place. Throughout Eicha, we are described as alone, abandoned, and empty. We feel so far removed from G-d, that we are not able to take that first step, let alone change our actions to be able to properly do teshuva. In this pasuk, we are calling out to Hashem in desperation and saying, “Please bring us close to you! Please take that first step, as you did in creating man initially as a godly being!” We are asking Hashem to bring us close to Him, as we were in the first days of man.
Today, we often feel so far from Hashem. We do not know what tomorrow brings and we don’t know where to turn. It is specifically at these times of distance that Eicha reminds us that we must turn to Hashem, call out to Him, and ask Him to bring us close. Only then, can we work on ourselves and build up our strength and spiritual energy to return from such a low place. May we merit this year during the month of Av to finally experience this closeness again with the coming of Mashiach!
Emma Katz is a graduate of the Matan Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute. She is currently the Director of NILI-The Women’s Initiative of the YU Torah Mitzion Kollel of Chicago. Emma earned her BA in Judaic Studies from Stern College and Masters degree in Jewish Education from the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. She has taught in many formal and informal Jewish educational settings, including Shulamith High School for Girls in the Five Towns and the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago.
Matan Women's Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem has been at the cutting edge of Torah learning for women since it was established by Rabbanit Malka Bina in 1988.