In this week's Torah portion (Devarim), Moses complains to the Israelites about the difficulty of bringing this nation through the desert. Even as he stands with the Israelites on the border of the Land of Israel—their journey almost at its end—Moses reminds them how difficult it has been to get them this far.
He declares, "How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!" (Deuteronomy 1:12). Moses knows something about the failures of the human will to do what is right. He knows that the great victory of reaching his lifetime goal will not last forever.
That first word of the verse, "How," has a special resonance this week. In Hebrew it is "Eichah," which is also the first word of the book of Lamentations, which we will read next Monday night on Tisha B'Av. In Hebrew, Lamentations is called Megillat Eichah, "the Scroll of How."
There is a tradition of chanting the verse that begins "How" in this week's Torah portion to the same mournful melody used for Lamentations on Tisha B'Av. We hear in this verse a harbinger of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 bce, as it is described in Lamentations. There also is an echo of the other catastrophes for the Jewish people that are said to have occurred on Tisha B'Av—the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ce, the crushing of the Bar Kokhbah Rebellion in 132 ce, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, among many others.
Both Moses' complaint and the book of Lamentations share a sense of despair. How is it that human beings can be so cruel, destructive, and so forgetful of what is right? It is as if Moses foresees the doom that is the destiny of the people he serves. Eventually, their tendency toward complaint and ingratitude will bring about the destruction of the Temple. How can he bear the thought that his life's mission of service to the Israelites—to bring them to the Land of Israel—will be reversed by their own failings?
This is one of the great questions of human existence. How can we, knowing what we know about human history, continue to offer prayers for our deliverance? Don't we get it? Human beings are stuck in a routine of justifying their own cruelty. We are forever forgetting the values that lead to our own happiness.
Maybe this is the point of Tisha B'Av. This day of mourning exists to remind us—at least once a year—not to forget. It reminds us of the terrible price we pay if we do not treat each other with compassion and forgiveness. Tisha B'Av is our annual peek into the abyss of "How?" so that we will remember to hope for a better world. It's not about mourning for a building. It's not about wishing for the restoration of animal sacrifices. It is about clinging to hope despite despair. It is about envisioning a reality in which we transcend our human failings.