Haftorah: Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
December 24, 2021/20 Tevet 5782
Sephardic, middle-eastern and northern African transitions read the opening of the Book of Jeremiah as the haftorah for parashat Shemot. By making this selection, the life, career and teachings of Jeremiah form a lens through which to understand underlying themes in the life of Moshe himself. First, let’s clarify some important events and facts about Jeremiah. Then, let’s analyze some of the imagery of the haftorah and note points of comparison with Moshe and the enslavement in Egypt.
Jeremiah was active as a prophet from the thirteenth year of Yoshiyahu, king of Yehuda (626 BC), until after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of Shlomo’s Mikdash in 587 BC. This period spanned the reigns of five kings of Judah: Yoshiyahu, Yeho-achaz, Yeho-yakim, Yeho-yachin, and Tzedekiah. Jeremiah was the prophet of both destruction and rebuilding, exiled with the people to Babylonia and then returned to the land of Israel with Gedalyahu. According to the rabbis, Jeremiah descended from Rachav, the prostitute, who convereted and then married Joshua. (Megillah 14b) Also according to the rabbis, the prophetess Huldah was a relative and contemporary of Jeremiah. (Sifre, Num. 78; Meg. 14a,b) Jeremiah and Zephaniah were also contemporaries. Jeremiah was also a kohen, the son of Hilkiah, from the village of Anatot in Binyamin outside of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 1:1) Jeremiah composed Eicha as an eye-witness to the Babylonian destruction and exile of Jerusalem, according to the rabbis in the Talmud. (Talmud Baba Batra 15a)
When Jeremiah was called to prophecy in the late 7th century BCE, he was tasked to proclaim Jerusalem’s imminent destruction by the Babylonians, the “invaders from the north.” This was because Israel had abandoned God’ covenant by worshiping the idols of Baal, burning their children as offerings. (Jeremiah 19:2-9) Jeremiah was guided by God to proclaim that the nation of Judah would suffer famine, foreign conquest, plunder, and captivity in a land of strangers. (Jeremiah 10 -11) Since the people had forgotten God, turned their backs on the primal relationship with the Creator, Jeremiah invoked the classical biblical theology of suffering as a wake-up call to return to God: For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:11-13). This theology was already established in the Book of Shemot, during the enslavement in Egypt. God responded to the people only when they cried out from their suffering.
Unlike Yonah’s message to the wicked people of Ninveh who repented with alacrity, Jeremiah’s messaging was not well-received. Jeremiah suffered at the hands of the people of Anatot because of his messages of impending doom. The population conspired against him and threw him into a pit of mud, hoping that he would starve to death, enabling them to proclaim that they had not spilled innocent blood directly, much as Joseph’s brothers had originally conspired against their brother. (Jeremiah 38 describes the plot against Jeremiah. The comparison to Joseph seems obvious to me.) God commanded Jeremiah to wear a wooden yoke on his neck, to demonstrate to the people that God would punish them by enslaving them under the yoke of Nebuchadnezer. When Hananiah removed that yoke and broke it, Jeremiah retorted: You have only broken a yoke of wood. The God of Israel will replace that with a yoke of iron. (Jeremiah 27 & 28) As with all of the classical prophets, including Moshe, Jeremiah tried to heighten Israel’s awareness of themselves, their behaviors, and the implications of their decisions. As has been the case throughout history, the Jews of his time resisted these attempts and pushed back against the prophet. The people refused to step back and see the context within which they were living and try to make sense of it.
The haftorah literary structure suggests three units: Jeremiah’s induction as a prophet, his visions, and an expression of God’s eternal love for the Jewish people. Jeremiah’s installation as a prophet echoes many of the same elements in Moshe’s own life experience and career. Both Moshe, at the burning bush, and Jeremiah, protest God’s selection. In fact, both protest that they are inarticulate. Jeremiah claims that he does not know how to express ideas, he is too young. God responds my touching Jeremiah’s mouth, and asserting that God will tell Jeremiah exactly what to say:
The word of the LORD came to me: Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations. I replied: Ah, Lord GOD! I don’t know how to speak, For I am still a boy. And the LORD said to me: Do not say, “I am still a boy,” But go wherever I send you And speak whatever I command you. Have no fear of them, For I am with you to deliver you —declares the LORD. The LORD put out His hand and touched my mouth, and the LORD said to me: Herewith I put My words into your mouth. See, I appoint you this day Over nations and kingdoms: To uproot and to pull down, To destroy and to overthrow, To build and to plant. (Jeremiah 1:1-10)
Rashi compared Jeremiah to Moshe. Rashi wrote that when Moshe protested about reproving the Jews, he had much more experience than Jeremiah. (Rashi on Jeremiah, 1:6, for I am a youth) The ancient rabbis already compared this moment in Moshe and Jeremiah’s lives:
When Jeremiah said to the Holy One (in Jer. 1:6): I am a youth, the Holy One said to him Do not say, “I am a youth.” Wherever I send you, you shall go…. God did not budge until Jeremiah went on the mission of the Holy One…. In the case of Moshe also: When the Holy One said to him (Shemot 3:10): Come, I will send you to Pharoah, Moshe said ( Shemot 4:13): Please make someone else Your emissary. The Holy One had said to him: I am telling you, “Go!” and you are asking Me to send someone else. Let’s see whose will is stronger, yours or Mine! God did not budge until Moshe went, as stated ( Shemot 4:18), “then Moshe went to Pharaoh…..(Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Shemot, 14:2)
Classically, all prophets protested their election and mission by God. Yonah might be the most dramatic example, in which he heard God’s assignment, bought a ticket to board a ship, and fled in the opposite direction from his divinely appointed destination.
What I find striking in the comparison, is that while Moshe’s mandate is to confront Pharaoh, God appointed Jeremiah to prophesize to “the nations.” Moshe represents the paradigm of the prophet; he was, indeed, the quintessential prophet. “Never again has a prophet emerged amongst Israel with the stature of Moshe.” And as God said to Miriam and Aharon: “Moshe is not like other prophets; we speak directly to each other, ‘face to face.’” Nevertheless, the points of comparison between Moshe and Jeremiah’s beginnings are so similar, that any slight difference is significant. While Moshe was the prophet for Israel, Jeremiah is the universalistic prophet to the nations. Jremiah’s message against idolatry starts with Israel, but his mandate is universal, and not confined to Israel alone. I believe that this interpretation is strengthened by Jeremiah’s first vision of an almond tree. (1:11-12) God explains that the word, “almond,” shaked, alliterates with the verb sha-k-d, meaning, “to remain steadfast. God’s message through Jeremiah will not waver; God means business. However, there is an additional layer of associative meaning. It is not accidental that Aharon’s symbol of authentic leadership after the rebellion of Korach in the wilderness was a flowering almond tree. Together, Again and Moshe represented the leadership of the Jewish people: priest and prophet. Here, Jeremiah is proclaiming that humanity, starting with the Jews, will pay the price for turning their backs on the Creator, for failing to behave with the humility and compassion the Creator expects of God’s creatures.
This is then precisely the criticism that lies at the heart of Jeremiah’s second vision, in the next segment of the haftorah. The people had turned towards idolatry, including sacrificing their own children to Baal:
And the word of the LORD came to me a second time: What do you see? I replied: I see a steaming pot, Tipped away from the north. And God said to me: from the north shall disaster break loose upon all the inhabitants of the land! For I am summoning all the peoples of the kingdoms of the north—declares Hashem. They shall come, and shall each set up a throne before the gates of Jerusalem, against its walls, and against all the towns of Yehuda. And I will argue My case against Yehuda and Israel for all their wickedness: they have forsaken Me and sacrificed to other gods and worshiped the works of their hands. (1:13-16)
God’s hope is that exile, forced servitude, the physical and emotional experience of alienation, will re-humble the people, re-kindle their yearning to return to their position as servants of the Creator, and be redeemed to return to their homes. In the meantime, God tells Jeremiah that the walls protecting Jerusalem, and the Mikdash itself, have essentially biome empty shells. Only Jeremiah himself will become the walls and turrets of sanctity:
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. I make you this day a fortified city, and an iron pillar, and bronze walls against the whole land— against Yehuda’s kings and officers, and against its priests and citizens. They will attack you, but they shall not overcome you; for I am with you—declares God—to save you.
God tells Jeremiah explicitly what Moshe had to experience time and time again. The people will push back, vehemently and violently, which indeed happened to Jeremiah. However, he, Jeremiah, and not Jerusalem, will become the walls and the fortifications, the gates and pillars of truth, justice, compassion, and steadfast loyalty to the covenantal commitment to care for the world and humanity that the Creator desires.,
Here, the rabbis made the comparison between Moshe and Jeremiah even more explicit:
…Just as Moshe prophesied concerning Yehuda and Binyamin, so did Jeremiah; as Moshe’s own tribe [the Levites under Korah] rose up against him, so did Jeremiah’s tribe revolt against him; Moshe was cast into the water, Jeremiah into a pit; as Moshe was saved by a servant (the servant of Pharaoh’s daughter); so, Jeremiah was rescued by a slave (Eved-melech, Jeremiah 38); Moshe reprimanded the people in discourses; so did Jeremiah. (Pesiqta, ed. Buber, xiii. 112a.)
The formative experiences of Bene Yisrael as immigrants in Egypt were intended to humble the people, to enable the Jewish people to internalize the experience of being a minority, so that if and when we wielded power and sovereignty, we would protect other minorities at all costs. God wanted the Egyptians to respond to Bene Yisrael with humility as well; the makkot, the plagues, were less punishments for the extremism of Egyptian oppression, and more God’s attempts to heighten Egyptian awareness of sharing a Creator with all humanity. Nevertheless, Pharaoh was in love with himself and his own power. His arrogance destroyed him and his civilization. Here, Jeremiah warns the Jews of his day of the same arrogance. What deeper denial of God’s covenant could there be than offering their own children on the altars of Molech? The sacrifice of children represents an act of the deepest narcissistic cruelty. This is exactly what Jeremiah claims: Bene Yisrael worshiped the work of their own hands, and offered their children to Molech. (chp.19) As Rabbi David Valle wrote in his mystical commentary on Jeremiah based on kabbalistic traditions:
When God told Jeremiah that the nations from the north will mount an attack against the walls of Jerusalem and Yehuda, it was because Israel, representing humanity (Israel represents “bene adam” wrote Rabbi Valle), abandoned their purpose in the world, and stopped seeing themselves as servants of the Creator. Once this happened and Bene Yisrael no longer see holiness in the world and they denigrate their position and the teachings of the Torah, then the forces of pure externality (i.e. “chitzoniut”), called, “evil,” will surround what had been holy, and overrun it. (Merapeh Lashon, commentary of Jeremiah, Rabbi David Valle, 18th century Italy)
There literally will no longer be any barriers preventing the complete violation of all that is sacred in the world. Once people abandon the boundaries formed of love, compassion, empathy and justice, then chaos overwhelms all that had been sacred. When human beings behave with arrogance, the world’s well-being and balance are at risk.
God yearns for a humble, loving, compassionate humanity. The people of Israel are tasked, for better or worse, with evolving into an exemplar of that humanity. That would be a world filled with love, dignity, empathy, truth, balance and justice. This sentiment is precisely the closing words of this haftorah from the beginning of chapter 2:
Go proclaim to Jerusalem: Thus said the LORD: I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride— how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, the first fruits of God’s harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster befell them —declares the LORD. (2:2-3)
This is God’s hope for the Jewish people, and by extension, for all humanity: a yearning for a humanized humanity. Jeremiah declares that God recognizes that people have that sensibility inside of us. It requires reset, starting in an uncultivated space, a place not sullie by human desires and avarice, mendacity, humiliation and oppression. Remember when we were young and naive, pure and in love? Remember when we looked at the world with wonder, and had simple needs? How has humanity forgotten that? What has encrusted and ossified our memories and yearnings to recapture and truly live, nourished by that primal energy of goodness and humility? What happened? Jeremiah’s final declaration of hope for the future is an attempt to save the children from the altars of Molech.