Rav Yehoshua Yogel, zt”l, was born in Lodz, Poland, and was a student of the famed Lithuanian yeshiva in Kletzk, where he studied with the great Rav Aharon Kotler. After his aliyah in 1936, Rav Yogel learned at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav and played a formidable role in rebuilding Torah in the land of Israel after the war. While active in Mizrachi, a religious Zionist movement, he maintained close relationships with both the Chazon Ish and Rav Shach, the latter an old yeshiva-mate who considered Rav Yogel a “dear friend.”
Rav Yogel was part of a unique chabura of great teachers and builders during the most turbulent and transitional times in modern Jewish history. One of Rav Yogel’s mentors was the accomplished gaon, Rav Zvi Yehuda Meltzer, a disciple of the Alter of Novardok and eldest son of the Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, rav of Pardes Chana and founder of numerous yeshivot.
Rav Meltzer’s son-in-law, Rav Yehuda Amital, zt”l, was a unique talmid chacham, visionary and builder of Torah as well. After his family was killed in Auschwitz, Rav Amital came to Eretz Yisrael, fought in the Haganah and was the founding rosh yeshiva of Har Etzion (aka “the Gush”). Respected for his penetrating genius and fierce independence, Rav Amital was beloved as a humble gadol b’Yisrael and deeply caring and dedicated rebbi.
In Pardes Chana, Rav Yogel and Rav Amital worked together at “HaMidrashiya,” one of the first yeshivah high schools with a dual curriculum of Torah and secular studies. In those days, a great debate raged in the world of academia and biblical criticism regarding the alleged multiple authorship of sefer Yeshayahu. The traditional response was to not even entertain questions aimed at undermining the singular authorship and divine source of the Navi.
One day, a passionate student challenged Rav Amital and asked him such a question directly. Much to the student’s surprise, Rav Amital answered simply that he did not know. The frank honesty of the response diffused the conversation—and disappointed Rav Yogel. “How could you say that you don’t know the answer?!”
Rav Amital replied: “Do you think this shmendrik is really bothered by the integrity of the book of Yeshayahu? He’s looking for an excuse to stop wearing tefillin and keeping the mitzvot! With my answer, I wanted to show that I—despite not knowing how to answer every question—continue to put on tefillin every day.”
Our sedra—parshas Devarim—is always read on the Shabbos immediately preceding Tisha B’Av. In sefer Devarim, also called, “Mishneh Torah—the Review of the Torah,” Moshe Rabbeinu begins to review the triumphs and travails (mainly travails) of Am Yisrael in the midbar. At one point, he recalls telling Am Yisrael:
אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא לְבַדִּי טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם וְרִיבְכֶם:
“Eichah, ‘how’ can I bear your trouble, your burden and your strife all by myself?” (1:12)
In Jewish consciousness and language, Eichah is a plea—a desperate cry—from deep within, a question and lament, demanding, “How? How could this be! How can this continue?” In a precious minhag Yisrael, the baal korei publicly chanting the Torah emphasizes the connection of this pasuk with the essence of Tisha B’Av, by leining it with the mournful melody of Megillas Eichah. This fleeting hint at lamentation awakens our hearts to reflect on the unimaginable devastation and loss, suffering, death and exile experienced with and symbolized by the Churban, the destruction.
Midrash (Eichah Rabbah, 1:1) lists three examples of prophets who used the term, “eichah:” Moshe Rabbeinu, Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu. Each employed the word to express different stages and experiences throughout our history.
On Tisha B’Av, we join the Navi Yirmiyahu in his plea of “eichah,”—asking, crying out in confusion, passionate sorrow and pain: “How can this go on?! How can klal Yisrael continue to exist in this state of churban?” The megillah begins with the question and challenge: “Eichah! How can it be that the city—which was so full of life—now sits alone?”
A broken hearted cry of “eichah” to Hashem can actually be heard as a form of prayer. Not every question has an answer, but not every question is asking for an “answer.” The openness of uncertainty, not knowing and questioning itself reveals the presence of deeper faith—in fact, the essence of belief. Cognitive and spiritual dissonance can only appear on a backdrop of resonance. The destruction of Hashem’s city bothers us because deep down, we know it is an eternal city. The paradox is almost too much for our human mind and heart to bear: “How can this be?!”
Zohar HaKadosh (Bereishis, 29a) directs our attention to the first time the word איכה appears in Torah. Following the tragic error of Adam Harishon eating from the eitz hadaas, he is filled with shame and “hides,” seeking to escape the repercussions of his actions. Before Adam and Chavah face banishment from Gan Eden, the root experience of all exiles, Hashem calls out to Adam, seeking him out to take responsibility: איכה, “Ayekah—Where are you?” In Hebrew, “ayekah” has the same spelling as “eichah.”
If we look outward and seek answers or explanations for our suffering, Hashem may not give us a direct answer. He may, instead, redirect our focus inward, demanding that we ask ourselves “Where am I? What responsibility do I bear for the continued exile of knesses Yisrael from her eternal homeland?”
Some questions and challenges addressed to our Creator might always remain unanswerable. If Mashiach has not come before this Tisha B’Av, God forbid, perhaps, instead of focusing only on the unanswerable questions around our inexplicable exile, we ought to shift our emphasis inward, and ask ourselves the pointed, yet faithful, question: “Ayekah? Where am I in all this—and what must I do to change it?”
Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.