Haftorah: Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 2:4-28 & 4:1-2
In this week’s haftorah, the second of the three readings leading up to 9th Ab, Yirmiyahu haNavi, Jeremiah the Prophet, excoriated the population of Jerusalem for worshipping false gods, a consummate act of disloyalty. God was enraged that the Jewish people, and in particular, the leadership of kings, prophets and priests, became enamoured of such falsehoods. For Jeremiah, the sin of idolatry has theological, political, and psychological implications. It is precisely the interrelationship between these layers that lie at the heart of the tragic destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of our people. Jeremiah’s metaphorical language exposes the emotional dysfunctionality that characterized the people of Jerusalem. This devar Torah explores the relationship between Jeremiah’s language, the political context within which he prophesied, and idolatry. The haftorah comes from chapter 2. Sephardic practice appends two additional verses from chapter 4, which add a significant dimension to the meaning of Jeremiah’s message, particularly since we read these words in anticipation of mourning these events on 9th Ab.
This segment from chapter 2 can be divided into four parts, each presenting its own theme as Jeremiah develops his argument against the Jewish people:
(1) verses 2:4-8: The unrequited love (2) verses 2:9-16: The pathology of forsaking one’s identity (3) verses 2:17-26: Three metaphors for Israel’s dysfunctionality: Water, Seeds, & Prostitution (4) verses 2:27-28: Hopelessness. (5) The two additional verses, 4:1-2: Hope
Jeremiah’s criticism of idolatry is less about its falsehood, even though he stated that clearly (2:11 & 28). He was more concerned about the disastrous consequences of the Jewish people’s willingness to attenuate their own identity. Being Jewish, argued Jeremiah, requires fidelity to the story of our past. What happened to us? What were our formative experiences? Who accompanied us? What binds us together? Remembering our past and seeing ourselves as part of a shared story forges commitments to each other as a people. Once we see ourselves as a people, we are then able to clarify our purpose in the world, and what God expects of the Jewish people amongst the other nations of the world.
Remembering past events is an emotional event. Memories penetrate the heart of the Jewish people, binding us together. In Jeremiah’s opening speech, God is shocked to discover that the Jewish people never wonder about those experiences. They have existential amnesia. They never wonder, “Where is God who took us from Egypt? Who accompanied us through the wilderness? Who fed us? Who brought us to a garden (carmel), the land of Israel? (2:4-8) The people were there. Yet, God cannot fathom that the Jewish people do not see themselves as the heirs to those moments. They no longer see themselves as players in their shared sacred history. Something has happened to the Jewish people that has inhibited them from feeling connected to those past moments. Memories nourish feelings, and those feelings nourished the non severable relationship between the Jewish people and God. When God said, My fear is no longer upon you, I understand that God felt that the Jewish people…no longer felt passion and awe of God. (2:11) How could that happen? God seems genuinely perplexed: You have fallen out of love with Me?! God seems to be thinking: “That love is everything. It nourishes your identity, and allows Me, in a relationship with you, to establish hope and expectations of the Jewish people in the world. What happened?” Jeremiah’s speech is profoundly relational. Something has died inside of the people, or has become so latent, that their perspective on themselves and on their place in the world has become perverse.
Jeremiah is less interested in the theology of idolatry than in its implications for the Jewish people. In the following section, verses 9-16, Jeremiah developed this point. The gods of the other nations are false gods, but here Jeremiah emphasized that those gods are false for you, for the Jewish people. He stated, Has any nation exchanged his gods?…But My people have forsaken their dignity/integrity (lit: kevodo) for falsehood. (2:11) The Malbim,Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 19th century Ukraine, explained explicitly: “…despite the fact that from our perspective, the gods of other nations have less value, nevertheless, nations do not abandon them.” It is unnatural for a nation to abandon the stories they must recall of their past that inform their identity. Jeremiah regarded this as so unnatural that he evoked heaven, recalling the creation of the world, and described heaven’s personified response: Heaven is shocked, traumatized, [by Israel’s neglect of her own past and identity!] (2:12) God is the spring of fresh running water slaking the thirst of the Jewish people. Why would they choose to drink still water from a cracked cistern that cannot even hold its contents? (2:13)
These words describe an existential pathology. Israel abandoned all emotional connection to their past. By doing that, they impaired a sense of themselves. One of the metaphors that Jeremiah introduced in the powerful third section of the haftorah, is the metaphor of a stain: Despite the fact that you use natron and lye to wash away your stains, your sins (of disloyalty) are indelible before Me. (2:22) Rabbi David Valle, 18th century Italy, explained that this metaphor refers to the inner condition of the people, and not merely a sin of idolatrous behaviorism:
The people might have thought that their idolatrous behavior was merely a matter of superficial misjudgment, a matter of externality. They might have thought that it would be an easy matter to simply correct their misbehaviors the way a detergent can remove a stain. Therefore, the prophet here emphasizes that their malady is deep inside of them, and it will be extremely difficult to remove [the cause of their pathology.]
The result of abandoning the past is instability in the present and a loss of direction for the future. Jeremiah not only described this condition, he set it within a political context with tragic geopolitical ramifications. He returned to another water metaphor: Drinking from the Nile will not slake your thirst, nor will drinking from the Euphrates be of any value. (2:18) Running after Egypt or Assyria for assistance, as the Babylonians threaten your security, will be of no avail. The Jewish people are thirsty. They were panting, desperate to drink. There is one source that has always provided water for the heart and soul of Israel, yet the Jewish people do not feel a connection to that source any longer. Instead, they prefer cracked cisterns or polluted rivers (mei shichur). The people became unmoored, ungrounded, lost.
These powerful water metaphors are found throughout the Book of Jeremiah. Another example comes from chapters 37-38. Those chapters describe the end result of what Jeremiah is already diagnosing and describing at the beginning of the book in this haftorah. These final chapters describe the destruction of Jerusalem and the tragic end to King Zedekiah by the Babylonians. Jeremiah reiterated his consistent message: the Jewish people had forgotten who they were in the world. Jeremiah never desisted from telling the people this truth. However, it was a truth that the Jewish people could not tolerate. They could not hear that as Jews, they are bound together as one people, and as one people, they have a role to play in the world, transcending their own immediate needs.
As a result, they panicked as the Babylonians approached. Do not confront them, warned Jeremiah. Choose life; go to Babylon and live there until such time as you can return. There, you will continue to live, and pray for the well-being of that government and those people. (Jeremiah had made this point earlier, in chapter 24) Instead of listening introspectively, the officers of the court in these final chapters placed him in prison. The population accused Jeremiah of undermining their morale, of being a traitor. Jeremiah, nevertheless, continued to tell them the truth: their disloyalty to God has sent God into exile, and therefore they will lose the privilege and responsibility for sovereignty in their land. The lived, historical relationship between the Jewish people and God informs the identity of the Jewish people, and projects God’s expectations of us in the world. Without an awareness of that primal relationship, the Jews become an abandoned people. With that pronouncement, Jeremiah was thrown into an empty cistern, recalling the conspiracy of Joseph’s brothers. The cistern was filled only with mud. Jeremiah sunk into the mud at the bottom, starving, dying of thirst and hunger.
Jewish leadership throwing Jeremiah into an abandoned cistern filled with mud was the end result of the message the prophet started to convey in this haftorah. The Jewish people were supposed to remain loyal to each other by seeing themselves as the heirs of shared experiences. By remaining loyal to their past, and by remaining loyal to the familial bonds connecting all Jews, the feeling of awe and respect for God would also inspire and propel the Jewish people to transcend their own particularity and build a Jerusalem as a society of righteousness, truth, and justice, a model for all humanity. Their lusting after other gods dislodged the people not only from their shared past, and not only from each other, but destabilized the foundation of their purpose in the world. These supplementary verses according to the Sephardic minhag added to this haftorah make this very point, to which I will return shortly.
The climactic verses of the haftorah then introduce two powerful images: the Jewish people as seeds in a garden, and as whores and animals in heat. I planted you in the garden with the best quality seeds, but you turned into weeds! (lit. hagefen nochriah) (2:21) Calling the Jewish people, “seeds,” echoes the original covenantal promise to Avraham. A promise of “seed” is the foundation of the Jewish people related and loyal to each other and to God, unconditionally. Members of an extended family. Remember our shared experiences? I broke the yoke of oppression from your backs and gave you human dignity! In response, you promised to remain loyal, yet you lay down under a tree in the crossroads like a whore. (2:20) You are like a wild she-donkey sniffing around for males; your lust is insatiable. You are like a she-camel that will mate with as many and whichever bull comes by. (2:23-24) Then, again, God implored the Jewish people to drink, but then noted: but no–the Jews prefer to drink from strangers. (2:25) God has caught the Jewish people red-handed, like a thief (2:26) These are the prophets, the priests, the officers, the kings. Again, the Malbim interpreted these verses exclusively in terms of zenut, as in the word in the shema, asher atem zonim ‘acharehem. Of zenut the Malbim wrote: Had the Jewish people worshipped idols because they believed that would be efficacious and a source of pleasure, they could have felt regret and then changed. However, here, they worshipped idols as an expression of something deep within themselves (lit. ‘atzmi). (Malbim, 2:25-26) I translate zenut, here, as, “the compulsion towards self-serving, self-aggrandizing, abuse, under the guise of self-gratification and pleasure.” Such a quality of character ultimately leads to people justifying exploitation, rather than seeing themselves as servants of a higher purpose.
This explanation resonates with Jeremiah’s criticism. The Jewish people were not making an honest mistake about idolatry, like Terach. Their idolatry was symptomatic of deep alienation from their past, from each other, and as a result, from their clear sense of purpose in the world. Their idolatry was a symptom of becoming unmoored from their past and from each other, from the formative experiences of oppression and freedom, of receiving food and water in the wilderness, of being promised a land and the hope of sovereignty. That sovereignty, however, was for a purpose: to fulfill the ethical mandates of the Torah revealed at Sinai by building a society based on justice and righteousness for all human beings. Only then can Israel sanctify God’s world.
This sense of purpose Jeremiah stated in the supplementary verses added to the haftorah:
If you return, O Israel — declares the LORD — If you return to Me, If you remove your abominations from My presence And do not waver, And swear, “As the LORD lives,” In truth, justice, and righteousness — Nations shall bless themselves by you And praise themselves by you. (4:1-2)
With these words, Jeremiah echoed the covenantal promise to Avraham. Your purpose in the world is to build a society that reflects a commitment to justice, truth and righteousness. Nations will look to you as a role model. That sense of universal commitment to humanity, to a world that can transcend your own particular needs, is nourished by your love for your own past and by a commitment to seeing each other as members of a family parented by the Creator of the universe. Reading this message from Jeremiah can compel us to recalibrate our sense of loyalty to each other as members of one people, as well as refocus our mandate as a people to model a commitment of justice, righteousness and truth for a redeemed humanity.