The end of this week’s haftarah, the second of the three haftarot of admonition (tlata depuranuta) which precede Tisha b’Av, contains a scathing indictment of the nation’s disloyalty to God. The prophet Jeremiah is at a loss to understand his people’s race after idolatry and ends his complaint with a mocking, 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 Judah, as many as your towns!” (2:28)
Jeremiah’s sarcasm is hard to miss. He mocks his fellow countrymen, who now face catastrophe, for putting their trust in deities who were nonentities, taunting them for brazening dedicating all their energies to ineffective causes. He sees in their actions, not just a lack of gratitude to God, but even more so, the ultimate decay of their society and urges them to turn away from their false ways and return to God. (See M. Bula, Daat Mikra Jeremiah, p. 28; Y. Hoffman, Mikra L’Yisrael Jeremiah, p. 146)
Rabbi Shimon ben (Resh) Lakish (3rd century Eretz Yisrael), saw in Jeremiah’s message the tail end of a process by which a nation loses its moral and religious moorings, leading to its destruction: “What caused the 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. No one admonished them, so 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 become 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)
Resh Lakish’s account is not just an admonishment of creeping syncretism. He regards societal decay as an incremental process where problems start out small, are ignored, and gradually manifest themselves on all levels until society is destroyed. He urges vigilance to wrongdoing and handling problems while they are small, before they fester, and become insurmountable. This observation could not be more relevant today.