This week’s haftarah is the second of the three haftarot of admonition (tlata depuranuta) which precede Tisha b’Av. Its last verse contains a scathing indictment of the nation’s disloyalty to God. The prophet Yermiyahu, exasperated by the people’s idolatrous behavior, mocked his countrymen with a hyperbolic exaggeration of the absurdity of their practices: “And where are those gods that you have made for yourselves? Let them arise and save you, if they can, in your hour of calamity. For your gods have become, O Yehudah, as many as your towns!” (2:28)
Yermiyahu’s sarcasm is hard to miss. He ridicules his fellow countrymen, who now face catastrophe, for putting their trust in deities who are nonentities. He taunts them to call upon their gods who are so multitudinous that it seems that there is not a single city without its own god and still these deities are without the capacity to save them. (See M. Bula, Daat Mikra Jeremiah, p. 28; Y. Hoffman, Mikra L’Yisrael Jeremiah, p. 146) This message is clearly intended to sway his countrymen away from their false ways so that they may return to God.
Inspired in part by this verse, the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (Reish Lakish, 3rd century Eretz Yisrael) tried to imagine how a nation loses its beliefs and ultimately collapses on account of its lost identity:
Said Resh Lakish: ‘Woe to those who join house to house, field to field’ (Isaiah 5:8) – you cause the destruction of the First Temple to touch that of the Second Temple – just as in the time of destruction of the First Temple, ‘Zion shall become a plowed field’ (Jeremiah 26:18), so, too, in the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, ‘Zion will become a plowed field’… What caused the [First] Temple to be destroyed? It was destroyed because there was not a single place left where the people had not set up some form of idolatrous worship. [How did such a situation come about?] At first, people would practice idolatry in a hidden place and when no one tried to prevent them, they took to practicing it in their homes behind closed doors; again when no one said a word, they took to practicing their idolatry openly on the roofs of their homes. When this was ignored, they began to do it on hilltops. Here, too, no one paid attention, so they took to doing it openly in the field. Again, there was no protest, so they began to do it openly on street corners. When no one admonished them, they began to carry out their practices in the middle of the street. When this too was ignored, they practiced their idolatry openly in all of the cities, as it is written: ‘For your gods have become, O Judah, as many as your towns!’ (Jeremiah 2:28) When even this was ignored, they brashly took to practicing their idolatry in the streets of Jerusalem, until they became so bold as to introduce their idolatry into the very precincts of the Temple. This sin is what sealed the decree. When they were exiled, Jeremiah cried out: ‘How lonely sits the city!’ (Lamentations 1:1) (Adapted and abridged from Eicha Rabbah, Petichta 22, Buber ed. pp. 16-17)
Societies do not disintegrate overnight. The process is incremental, barely noticeable. If problems are ignored when they seem insignificant then the problem will grow until it is insurmountable. Without vigilance to wrongdoing, precious values can be lost, religious civilizations forfeited, credible governance denied. Thoughts to consider as we approach, Tisha b’Av.