This week begins the special cycle of three haftarot which precede Tisha b’Av, known as the “tlata depuranuta” (three haftarot of retribution). In the first of these haftarot, Yermiyahu is charged with his mission as a prophet and warned of his responsibility to convey God’s message to the people. Since his mandate was to warn the people of their impending doom brought on by their disloyalty to God and immoral behavior, Yermiyahu was overcome by fear. God seemingly reassures him with these words: “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 is striking in its implied threat to the newly minted prophet. Rabbi David Kimche (Radak – 13th century Provence) captures the plain meaning of the words of this verse: “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 is renowned for being dedicated to the pshat or plain meaning of the Biblical text, seems to find this verse awkward and attempts a more straightforward interpretation: “Do not fear that I will break you before them, for I will not give you over into their hands.”
Maimonides (Rambam) explains God’s message to Yermiyahu in terms of his philosophical understanding of the nature of prophecy. He notes 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 Yermiyahu: ‘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 concludes that prophets have developed themselves and their intellectual capacity through philosophical growth in such a way that they are especially attuned to reality and truth, making it possible to understand the consequence of actions and events in such a way as to be able to foresee the future. (See Guide to the Perplexed 2:38) While Maimonides does not state explicitly how he might interpret the threat in God’s message to Yermiyahu, it seems reasonable to assume that he might interpret it in a manner similar to Rashbam, namely, not as a threat but rather as a means to fortify the prophet.
The bottom-line of God’s message to Yermiyahu is that it takes great courage and strength to be able to discern and to raise a voice to challenge destructive societal behaviors since such criticism is rarely received very well. God’s message to such individuals is to stand firm against the slings of those who are unwilling to heed their message for they should know that God is with them.