Recently, the current time of trouble and plague has turned my attention to what scientists call shifting baseline syndrome, how we let ourselves adjust to a changed reality as if it had always been normal. Sometimes it is the best strategy: life has changed, irrevocably, and living in the past serves no purpose. Often, though, we let ourselves lose contact with vital and valuable elements of the old, elements we could have held onto or recovered, had we tried harder.
Eikhah Rabbah opens with three prophets, Moshe, Yeshayahu, and Yirmiyahu, who all utilized the word eikhah, how. Truth is, the word appears in other places in Tanakh, even in other places in Devarim (Moshe’s book) and Yirmiyahu. R. Levi then makes explicit the idea I think the previous line in the Midrash intended to indicate: Moshe’s eikhah in this week’s parshah comes when the Jewish people were in a position of honor in the world, Yeshayahu’s (in this week’s haftarah) when the Jews recklessly (per Sefaria’s translation) took the path to destruction, and Yirmiyahu’s (in the book of Eikhah), when destruction had come.
Moshe complains about the people’s inability to accept his leadership, his need for assistance, a kind of “white people’s problem,” a problem of privilege. Life was going well, it could be better, they could have followed their remarkable leader without friction. Yeshayahu calls the nation to be aware of looming crises, the injustices rampant in their midst. Yirmiyahu gave voice and language to the people’s grief over the mess those sins eventually created.
To me, part of R. Levi’s point was that the word should have rung in their ears. Yeshayahu’s eikhah should have been a watershed moment, I think he wanted us to realize, because it should have taken the people back to Moshe’s time, should have caused them to look at themselves as they they had once been, and realize how far they had already descended. Had they, they would have seen the crisis was real, significant, and immediate.
They did not, for reasons we are not told, other than humanity’s stubborn devotion to disobeying Gd. Whatever the answer, their inability to hear Yeshayahu’s eikhah in its full context brought them to hearing Yirmiyahu’s eikhah, lamenting the destruction.
R. Levi’s comment challenges us to hear Yirmiyahu’s eikhah in its full context. Sure, we think we mourn the loss of the Beit HaMikdash (although not enough to have avoided the loss of the second one), and are aware we should want to get it back. R. Levi asks us whether we realize the lengthy process it took us until we arrived at that unfortunate point? Do we realize how, generation after generation, Jews adapted to a new baseline of behavior, making it less likely they would get back to where they had once been, to what had been supposed to be a starting point for further growth rather than the apex of the Jewish people’s relationship with Gd?
Consider this recurring phrase from Melakhim: rak (or akh) ha-bamot lo saru, the king in question (Yehoshafat, Yehoash, Amatzyah, or Azaryah) did what was right in Gd’s eyes, just the bamot—the private altars where people offered sacrifices to Gd outside the Beit HaMikdash—were not removed.
Think about it: bamot had become so entrenched in the Jewish people that good kings, who sought to fulfill Gd’s commandments, could not remove them. The people insisted on what they were certain was a valid form of worship of Gd, despite Gd having banned it. It became their baseline, a truth they could not imagine questioning, regardless of what anyone might tell them.
As we approach another Tish’a B’Av without a rebuilt Beit HaMikdash, cognizant of Yerushalmi Yoma’s idea that any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt should consider as if they themselves destroyed it, we can ask ourselves what baselines we have accepted, what properly unacceptable behavior has become common, ordinary, the baseline we don’t stop to notice.
And a continuing barrier to the rebuilding we need to want.