Jeremiah is known as the prophet of disaster but amidst his message of doom is a message of hope and restoration. He prophesied the exile but he also declared the return of God’s children to their homeland. His encouragement to those in despair that the exile would end was based on a critical element of God’s relationship with His people: “They shall come with weeping and with compassion will I guide them. I will lead them to streams of water by a level road where they will not stumble. For I am ever a Father to Israel, Ephraim is My first born.” (verse 8) The people’s return from exile is predicated upon the idea that God would forgive them for their past misdeeds.
Such an idea was not to be taken for granted. Jeremiah’s reassurance to the people talked of an end to the people’s physical exile. In the following midrash, this idea is applied to the ideal of redemption from ‘spiritual exile’ as well: “Rabbi Samuel Pargrita said in the name of R. Meir: To what can this be compared? [It can be compared] to the son of a king who took to evil ways. The king sent his tutor after him [to appeal to him], saying: ‘Repent, my son.’ The son, however, sent him back [to his father] and said to his father: ‘How can I have the audacity to return? I am ashamed to come before you.’ Thereupon his father sent back word: ‘My son, should a son ever be ashamed to return to his father? And if you return is it not to your father that you will be returning?’ So, too, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent Jeremiah to Israel when they sinned, and said to him: ‘Go, say to My children, Repent.’ ‘From where do we know this? For it is said: ‘Go and proclaim these words… Turn back, O rebel Israel, declares the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am compassionate, declares the Lord’ (Jeremiah 3:12). Israel asked Jeremiah: ‘How can we have the audacity to return to God?’ From where do we know this? For it is said, ‘Let us lie down in our shame, and let our disgrace cover us, for we have sinned before the Lord our God.’ (ibid 25) But God sent back word to them: ‘My children, if you return, will you not be returning to your Father?’ From where do we know this? [For it is said]: ‘For I am ever a father to Israel, Ephraim is My first born.’ (ibid 31:8)” (adapted from Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:24)
The response of the son in this midrash is predictable. It is his presumption that the king’s honor cannot be compromised. The king informed his son of his willingness to forgo his honor out of his parental love for his son. God, too, wants us to know that He yearns for our return and willingly waives His honor to reclaim His relationship with us.
God’s response is necessary because many of us feel so incapacitated by our self-imposed alienation from God that we feel that reconciliation with God is impossible. This midrash reminds us that God is our loving Parent who sees beyond our tainted exteriors and wants nothing more than that we return to live in His presence.