We are used to hearing Jeremiah’s harsh criticism of his people and his predictions of doom as the nation lurched towards its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. In this week’s haftarah, he explores the depths of human behavior as well. What makes a person good and what causes a person to do wrong? Is it possible for a person to take control of him or herself to right their ways? Can we control our inner demons? In an obscure verse, Jeremiah fingers the culprit in this battle: “More crooked the heart than all things, it is grievously ill and who can fathom it?” (17:9 Alter translation)
The plain sense of this difficult verse is that the “heart, the source of both feelings and thought, is more crooked than any other thing and there is no knowing where it will lead a person.” (Yair Hoffman, Yermiyahu, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 398) In other words, people can be caught off guard by where their thoughts and feelings might lead them, fooling them into getting into unthinkable trouble.
The following rabbinic parable puts this predicament into perspective and offers a solution: Said Rabbi Levi: “What is this like? An architect built a city with hidden chambers and passageways and then appointed an overseer for the city to maintain it. When the overseer sought to capture the thieves and criminals in the city, they fled to the city’s hidden chambers. The overseer said to them: ‘Fools, I know this city better than anyone. I know all of its hidden places and he quickly captured the culprits.’ So, too, God made human beings and knows their secret places.” Said Rabbi Jeremiah: “What is written immediately after the verse: ‘More crooked the heart than all things, it is grievously ill and who can fathom it’? ‘I am the Lord who probes hearts, testing the conscience (literally, the kidneys)’” (verses 9-10) (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 14:1, Buber ed. pp. 111-112)
This parable thrashes out Jeremiah’s thoughts. People find all kinds of ways to justify and rationalize wrongdoing – to “hide in hidden places”. Jeremiah offers an antidote to these harmful delusions. He reminds us that we really cannot hide. Our actions are seen and known. It is therefore truly helpful to be aware that God can be there for us to “oversee” our actions and to act as a counterbalance to our lower inclinations. If we allow God to be involved in our deliberations, we just might be able to overcome that which could harm who we really want to be.