Any biblical passage has multiple layers of meaning – or meanings – to uncover.
A teenage TorahTutors student saw one example in the middle of Eicha, which will be read on Tisha B’Av tomorrow night. Chapter 3 verses 37-38 contain the following words – presented without punctuation:
Who this said and it was God didn’t command From the mouth of the High will not go out the bad things and the good
This is how we end up with multiple translations and commentaries – yielding very different readings and implications.
According to one explanation in Rashi, the passage uses a rhetorical question in response to a hypothetical argument: One might suggest that the terrible events described in Eicha were not from God, but were simple happenstance. To this, the prophet responds rhetorically: “Whether good things or bad, who is it who says and it happens, if God didn’t command it, and it didn’t come from His mouth?!” Meaning – everything that happens is from God.
Rambam takes the text in a very different direction. He cites this passage in the context of discussing the need to “heal” the “sickness” of sin and reads it as a straight statement, rather than a rhetorical question – and as referring to the good and bad things *we* do, rather than to the good and bad things that happen *to* us, as in Rashi’s readings. Our actions do not come from God’s mouth, but from our own free will.
Rambam’s interpretation seems like an assertion of blame (or credit): we have no one but ourselves to thank for our actions. Indeed, Rambam understands verse 39 to be saying it’s appropriate to lament one’s own misdeeds. However, he goes on to infer a word of encouragement from verse 40, which calls “Let us search our path…and repent” – as Rambam writes: “The treatments of this ‘sickness’ are in our hands. Just as our sins were by our choice, so it is up to us to repent.” If we had freedom to make bad decisions in the past, then we can choose to make good decisions now and in the future. It is all in our hands.
All this, and more, from just a few lines of text.
Where can these ideas take us, on Tisha B’Av and beyond?
A Tuesday TorahTutors tidbit: real Torah, from real TorahTutors sessions.