This week begins the special cycle of three haftarot which precede Tisha b’Av, known as the “tlata d’puranuta” (three haftarot of retribution). In the first of these haftarot, God charged Jeremiah with the mission to warn his people of their impending doom brought about by their disloyalty to God and immoral behavior. Jeremiah was so overcome by trepidation that God sought to reassure him: “So you, gird up your loins, arise and speak to them all that I command you. Do not break down before them, lest I break you before them.” (1:17)
This message seems more a threat than a message of encouragement. Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provence) affirms this understanding: “If you do not fear them and instead have trust in Me (God), I will save you from their hands; but if you are afraid of them, then I will break you even in front of them.” Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), one of Rashi’s grandsons, who was known for his dedication to the pshat or plain meaning of the Biblical text, must have been troubled by the implications of this interpretation because here he veers from the verse’s plain meaning: “Do not fear that I will break you before them, for I will not give you over into their hands.”
This verse offered Maimonides an opportunity to expound upon his philosophical understanding of prophecy. He explains that both courage and the ability to anticipate the future are natural faculties present in all people to varying degrees. These qualities are especially pronounced in prophets, and in some prophets these qualities border on the unique, creating individuals with “no fear and no dread because it was said to them: ‘I (God) will be with you’ (Exodus 3:12) Thus it was said to Jeremiah: ‘Be not afraid…. Be not dismayed at them… For, behold, I have made you a fortified city…’ (Jeremiah 1:17-18) … all of them (the prophets) … were endowed with great courage… Know that the true prophets indubitably grasp speculative matters.” Maimonides concluded that philosophical growth enables the true prophet to become especially attuned to reality and truth. Consequently, the prophet is fortified against those who threaten him or her with falsehood. (See Guide to the Perplexed 2:38) In a certain sense, this understanding brings him close to the Rashbam’s understanding of this verse.
This “prophetic” tenacity is particularly important for those who, like Jeremiah, discern in their society destructive behaviors. God, therefore, wants to remind them to stand firm when their convictions lead them to stand up for what is right even when it is not popular and to remember that God stands with them.