The Three Weeks and the Making of the Unrigid Mind

The haftorahs that we read during the three weeks, the three of affliction, and those that we read on the following weeks, the seven haftorahs of consolation, include some of the most stirring prophetic passages. These visions and other words of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah have inspired people far beyond the Jewish community. However, Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets whose words we frequently read and recite were hardly the only prophets active in their time. We even know the names of some of these other prophets, like Hananiah ben Azzur who is mentioned by Jeremiah, or Jonah who seems to simply fade way. What is the difference between the teachings of these prophets whom our tradition intentionally forgot and those whose visions we continue to hold onto?

The prophetic messages of Hananiah ben Azzur and Jonah were strikingly different. The book of Jeremiah tells us, “[Hananiah ben Azzur] said: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: I hereby break the yoke of the king of Babylon. In two years, I will restore to this place all the vessels of the House of the Lord which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took from this place and brought to Babylon.” Several verses later Hananiah repeats this claim again, that in two years Babylon will be destroyed and the Jewish people will no longer be subjected to its power. This appears to have been Hananiah’s only message. He was, it seems, an unwavering optimist who could see no future in which the Jewish people were not swiftly saved from the encroaching power of the Babylonian empire.

Jonah in contrast is of course the consummate pessimist. According to the Book of Jonah when God saw that the people had repented, he renounced his punishment. Yet, this change of events did not please Jonah. In fact, we are told that it greatly distressed him. Jonah could not imagine a future in which the people were not punished; he could not imagine a future in which change was possible. Despite their different outlooks, Hananiah and Jonah share one thing in common, there is a striking rigidity in their thinking. Their thinking leaves no room for challenges and progress, struggle and growth. Even as the stories of their lives have been preserved, their prophetic messages have been discarded. They serve as a warning to us about the dangers posed by an overly rigid outlook to life.

The messages of the prophets whose visions we do read could not be more different. The haftorahs of the Three Weeks culminate on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av when recite the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah. “Your new moons and fixed seasons fill me with loathing; They have become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them.” Because of the hypocrisy of the Jewish People, even the sight of our holidays fills God with anger. Yet even on this saddest of all Shabbatot, hope is not lost from this vision׃ “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.’’ Isaiah tells the Jewish People. Isaiah’s thinking about the future is anything but rigid, he sees the shortcomings of the Jewish People, but he also emphasizes that change and growth are possible.

Hananiah and Jonah could not integrate ideas that challenged their long-held assumptions into their world view. They could not believe that the story of those to whom they were preaching might be more complicated than they first imagined, but Isaiah could. Isaiah recognized and appreciated the story of the Jewish People with all its complexity, and it is this path that we must strive to follow. It is all too easy for us to ignore ideas or evidence that contradict our long-held assumptions, to allow our old and familiar scripts and habits to guide our lives. We do this on a national level when we view the news solely through a partisan binary lens. Our guy is always right, we like to think, their guy is always wrong. But like Isaiah, we need to be able to hold those closest to us to account, including the politicians and parties with whom we are aligned. But most importantly, in our personal lives we also far too often fall back on old beliefs and ideas about those around us. It is easy to assume that we know why people act the way they do and view them through a superficial lens. But ultimately it is only when move beyond this approach, beyond rigid patterns of thinking, that we can see our world clearly and make the most out of the relationships in our lives.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
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