We are in the midst of the three weeks of mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem and the First and Second Temples, once in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE. Is our mourning during this period just a commemoration of the past or does it represent something deeper? Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky (the Slonimer Rebbe), in his work, Netivot Shalom, points out that the special days of the Jewish calendar are meaningful only because their messages are eternal, namely, they have something to say about who we are as Jews and human beings that is eternally relevant. This week’s haftarah, the second of the three special messages chosen to precede Tisha b’Av, the day in which we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, illustrates this point. In it, Jeremiah, the prophet of the destruction of the First Temple, presents his people with two contrasting paths of action, one offering hope and the other disaster.
God, obviously, urges the people to choose the path of hope, reminding them to be cognizant of God’s blessings for His people and, in particular, the nation forming redemption from Egypt. He challenges them to remember their unique identity based on this event and asks them to be grateful for what God has done for them. In contrast, the people seem to be bent on disregarding the past, on adopting the religious and social patterns of their neighbors and in denying God. Jeremiah reminds his people that this attitude will ultimately bring disaster: “What wrong did your fathers find in Me that they grew distant from Me went after mere breath and turned into mere breath? And they did not say: ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up out of the land of Egypt and led us through the wilderness in a land of desert and pits, in a land of parched earth and death’s shadow, in a land where no man has gone, and where no human dwelled?’” (2:5-6) Jeremiah is confounded by the people’s choices. How could they cast off those events which shaped who they are, ignore God, who gave them their identity?
Judaism, as a religion, stresses the importance of gratitude and loyalty. As a perpetual minority people, it is very difficult to juggle the above values together with the desire to fit in and be like everyone else. Even when the choices taken are bad choices, mere “breath” without substance, even if they are clearly wrongheaded, the desire to conform is still strong. This dilemma has tormented Jews throughout the ages and the pull of the ephemeral “breath” never disappears. Jeremiah’s message urges us not to forget where we come from and the power of our story when we confront life for to forget these things comes at a very high price.
*This Shabbat is also Rosh Hodesh Av. Normally, we would read the haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh this Shabbat. However, since this is the second of the three special Shabbatot before Tisha b’Av, it is the Ashkenazi custom to read the special haftarah for this period instead.