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Know What to Answer (Jeremiah 16:19-17:14)

In the second prophecy of this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah condemns Israel for its flagrant religious disloyalty: “While their children remember their altars (kizkor b’naihem mizbikhotam) and sacred posts by verdant trees upon lofty hills.” (17:2) The New Jewish Publication Society translation notes that the meaning of the Hebrew words which make up the first part of this verse is “uncertain”. Other modern commentators concur, concluding that there must be a flaw in the transmission of this verse (See Y. Hoffman, Jeremiah, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 392)

Rashi, following the interpretation of Targum Yonatan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, read the first part of this sentence as a comparative phrase: “Just as they remember their children, so, too, they remember their idols”, namely, they love their idols the same way they love their children. This reading also forms the basis for one of the opinions found in a Talmudic debate over what prompted certain Israelites to worship idols: “Rav Judah said in Rav’s name: The Israelites knew that the idols were not real, but they engaged in idolatry only in order to allow themselves to openly satisfy their licentious behavior. Rabbi Mesharshia objected [to this explanation, citing the verse from our haftarah]: ‘As those who remember (love) their children, so, too, they yearned for their altars, and their sacred posts by the verdant trees etc’ (17:2); Rabbi Elazar derived [this understanding from the verse from our haftarah]: ‘As one who yearns for his son [so they yearned]? [The Talmud responds to this challenge: Their love for idolatry was only kindled] after they became attached to them.” (Sanhedrin 63b)

This debate provides an insight into the Sages’ perception of the religious psychology of those who leave the Jewish tradition. One opinion asserts that people leave Judaism to “escape” its moral restrictions. They search for a means to divest themselves of the guilt born from what they see as the Torah’s oppressive restrictions on their all too human appetites. They search out idolatry as a “cover” for their indulgences. The second opinion objects. It holds that people are perfectly capable of adopting idolatry and believing in it passionately. This for the sages was seen as complete betrayal. Still, the Talmud cannot fathom this possibility, asserting that a Jew could not possibly volitionally believe in idolatry. Rather a person might begin by adopting it for ulterior motives and then through practice become attached to it.

The recognition of what leads people astray is a valuable tool. It helps us to better understand ourselves and understand our message. It does not mean that we must alter our message to accommodate those who leave. It does mean, however, that we need to hone how we explain what it means to be Jewish, its value and its contribution to making a whole and better human being who lives in the presence of God.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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