Haftorah: Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Since parashat Pinchas is read this year after 17 Tammuz, this week’s haftorah initiates readings during the three week period from that date until the 9 Av. These weeks are called, bein hametzarim, “the period of distress or anxiety between catastrophes.” The term, bein hametzarim, is found in midrash Eicha Rabbah. Before taking leave of Bene Yisrael, Moshe admonishes the nation to remain loyal to God’s covenant and expectations that the Jewish people will live through a commitment to mitzvot. The midras then applies Moshe’s words of admonishment to the destruction of Jerusalem. Moshe told Bene Yisrael that disloyalty to God’s expectations of us will result in exile, and then continues: Yet even among those nations you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest. God will give you there an anguished heart and eyes that pine and a despondent spirit. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 28:65). The Midrash amplifies this verse by saying: All of your enemies shall overtake you during the period between catastrophes, from the 17th of Tammuz until the 9th of Av, for this period will be characterized by bitterness and suffering. (Eicha Rabbah 1:29) Although the dates of the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE and the second Temple in 70 CE do not align precisely, the tragic events were close enough for the rabbis to conflate dates events in order to create an annual period of national mourning. As a result, this period marks many different events from different moments of our sacred history, all assigned dates marking this period of time:
Five calamitous matters occurred to our forefathers on the seventeenth of Tammuz, and five other disasters happened on the Ninth of Av. On the seventeenth of Tammuz the tablets were broken by Moshe when he saw that the Jews had made the golden calf; the daily offering was nullified by the Roman authorities and was never sacrificed again; the city walls of Jerusalem were breached; the general Apostemos publicly burned a Torah scroll; and Menashe placed an idol in the Sanctuary. On the Ninth of Av it was decreed upon our ancestors that they would all die in the wilderness and not enter Eretz Yisrael; and the Temple was destroyed the first time, in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, and the second time, by the Romans; and Beitar was captured; and the city of Jerusalem was plowed, as a sign that it would never be rebuilt. Not only does one fast on the Ninth of Av, but from when the month of Av begins, one decreases acts of rejoicing. (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6)
All of these calamities are catastrophes of breaking, or severing the relationship between God and the Jewish people. The Temples represent the possibility of living with an awareness of God’s continuous presence in the world. Offering gifts to God enabled people to feel that presence tangibly. The fate of the first generation in the wilderness was a tragic loss of opportunity. The burning of the Torah, an act of violation of God’s word on earth, and the dedication of a statue inside of God’s sanctuary, both represent the pagan obsession with self-worship and human power. Even though one can have empathy for Benei Yisrael’s need for object permanence in building the golden calf, the act caused a deep fissure in the fragile, emergent relationship with God. The midrashic tradition in Seder Olam teaches that on the 18th of Tammuz, Moshe prayed to God to forgive the Jewish people. From the 18th-28th Moshe carved two new tablets of stone, and then for forty days, from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur, Moshe received the teachings and engraved the new tablets for a second time. (The Sephardic minhag to recite selichot for the forty days from Rosh Chodesh through Yom Kippur reflects a liturgical dramatization of this chronology.) Then, on Yom Kippur, Moshe descended with the second set of tablets, affirming that God had forgiven the people (Shemot 34:9). (Seder Olam 6)
I approach this haftorah selection from Jeremiah from the perspective of viewing catastrophic historical events through the lens of a broken relationship between God and the Jewish people (and by extension, between the Creator and humanity) that then requires time to repair and heal. The selection can be organized into four sections. Part one: Jeremiah’s lineage, 1:1-3. Part two: Jeremiah’s appointment and mission, 1:4-10. Part three: Two metaphors: the almond branch and the boiling pot, 1:11-19. Part four: The love of youth, 2:1-3. Parts one and four frame the selection by referring directly to the lineage and sacred purpose of Kohanim, priests. I will turn my attention to that frame after offering ways of understanding the body of Jeremiah’s mission and visions.
God took notice of Jeremiah in utero. God explicitly states that Jeremiah has been selected as a prophet to the “nations.” (1:5,10). Uncomfortable with Jeremiah’s univeralistic assignment, Rashi explained that the phrase, “the nations” refers to Jews who started to imitate pagan ways while living in the midst of other cultures. This is not the plain sense of the text. Verse 10 reinforces Jeremiah’s universal mandate by stating that his mission will be to speak against kingdoms, i.e., governments, and nations, as a scourge to uproot them, or alternatively, to rebuild. Furthermore, God told Jeremiah, Do not be afraid of them; I will accompany you. (1:8) I read the word, them, to refer to the various nations who will become the object of Jeremiah’s concerns. The universality of Jeremiah’s mission is important. Jeremiah protested: I cannot speak. “I am inarticulate.” God responded: I will place the words in your mouth, and God touched Jeremiah’s mouth.(1:9) Jeremiah’s protest and God’s response echo the early appointment of Moshe himself. Moshe protested God’s directive to confront Pharaoh, and God responded by assuring Moshe that God would provide the words and a mouthpiece in the form of Aharon, Moshe’s brother. (Shemot 4:10-15) The Targum explained the image of God touching Jeremiah’s mouth to mean, “put words in his mouth,” i.e., “tell Jeremiah what to say. God touching Jeremiah’s mouth also anticipates the rabbinic midrash in which God’s angel guided the baby Moshe, put to a test of arrogance or humility by Pharoah, to reach for hot coals instead of a gold crown, thereby causing his speech impediment. (Shemot Rabbah 1:26) The parallel between Moshe and Jeremiah is important. They both were born with intuitive gifts as prophets. That gift involved conveying a divine message. In the case of Moshe, his prophetic mission was to confront Pharaoh and lead Benei Yisrael. In the case of Jeremiah, his mission, parallel to Moshe’s, is now universalized.
God projects two visions as metaphors. The first is an almond tree, sha-ked. God speaks in a pun: I am “sho-ked” in making certain that My word be actualized. Rashi offered two interpretations. Just as an almond tree typically blossoms earlier than other trees, God will act with alacrity to insure that God’s will be actualized. Additionally, according to the rabbis, almonds take twenty-one days to ripen, the same number of days between the 17 of Tammuz and 9 Av! (Eicha Rabbah 12:8) Despite these interpretations, Jeremiah in fact uses the word, sho-ked several times throughout his prophetic career. In one speech he said, A leopard lies in wait (sho-ked) by the cities; whoever leaves becomes torn to pieces. (Jeremiah 5:6). Again, Just as I was watchful (sho-ked) over [Israel] to uproot and to pull down, to overthrow and to destroy and bring disaster, so I will be watchful (sho-ked) over them to build and to plant….(Jeremiah 31:28) This use of the word, sho-ked suggests the opposite of haste. Quite the contrary: God’s commitment to the world is steadfast. God has a stake in the game of creation and will not give up on Israel or on humanity. If a nation’s behavior is so oppressive and if their culture has become so corrupt that God must start again, that nation will be uprooted and that culture will be destroyed. Once the ground is fertile again, roots will be planted and humanity will rejuvenate. This sense of sho-ked appeared in the Torah itself, connected to Aharon’s leadership and the stability of the priesthood: in the aftermath of the insurrection of Korach, tribal leaders all placed their staffs in front of the Mishkan. The Torah then relates: The next morning…Aharon’s staff had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne shekedim/almonds. (Bemidbar 17:23) This allusion is important considering Jeremiah’s lineage as a Kohen.
The second metaphor is a boiling pot in the north. Disaster pours forth from the north “over the entire earth,” another universal reference. (1:14) God called the nations of the north to establish a court outside the gates of Jerusalem and to sit in judgement of the citizens and leaders of the city. The Malbim, Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 19th century Ukraine, explained these verses explicitly this way. That court is seething, enraged by Jerusalem’s sins. Jeremiah is cast as the chief justice presiding over this court. The imagery is of one city confronting another. In this prophecy, God described Jeremiah himself as a walled city: I make you this day A fortified city, And an iron pillar, And bronze walls Against the whole land— Against Judah’s kings and officers, And against its priests and citizens. (1:8) Jeremiah is to stand firm, and not be intimidated against the hostilities he will inevitably suffer when accusing Jerusalem of her crimes. God, meanwhile, was sha-ked, unmoved, firm in the divine commitment to a vision for humanity of righteousness and justice and compassion.
What exactly was God’s accusation against the city, its population and leadership? Jeremiah stated that Jerusalem had become a city of idol worshippers: And I will argue My case against them For all their wickedness: They have forsaken Me And sacrificed to other gods And worshiped the works of their hands. (1:16) Idolatry hardens one’s heart as a result of worshipping the “work of one’s hands.” Idolatry is not a phenomenon of the past. Idolatry involves ossification, the objectification of some aspect of a life-form so that its vitality and energy become static. Instead of seeing the interdependency of all of creation, in its majestic diversity, with humanity endowed with the privilege of caring for and protecting the ecological balances in the world, an idolator sees only one’s own egotistical desires. Those desires can be for wealth or power, gained at the expense of anyone or anything perceived to stand in the way. Rabbi David Valle, a commentator writing from the mystical, kabbalistic tradition in 17th century Italy, explained this verse and the phrase, the work of their hands, this way:
The vital energy (lit. “the lights”) that should have appropriately pulsated within them instead became ossified (lit. “became husks,” “kelipot”), occluding the channels of flow with blockage. That is what the verse means by the word, “ra’atam,” literally, “their [spiritual] pathology….I will radiate energy on them [that they will experience as catastrophe and] as punishment, to enable them to overcome their condition. (Rabbi David Valle, Merapeh Leshon, commentary on Jeremiah, 1:16)
Rabbi Valle, writing from a kabbalistic tradition during the early modern period, reflects a transition from a mechanical world view in which divine energy flows through channels connecting the divine and earthly spheres, to a more dynamic understanding of spiritual interiority. I interpret Rabbi Valle’s words to allude to an inner condition of alienation from God and humanity’s sense of purpose in the world. If this interpretation is at all close to representing his comments, it provides a relevant way of understanding idolatry and Jeremiah’s prophetic criticism of the Jewish people. Jeremiah is not concerned merely with the technical aspects of idol worship, although that was certainly an external manifestation of the culture. Accordingly, Jeremiah was more deeply disturbed by the spiritual pathology that idolatry represented. Once people worship themselves, their own egos, their own desires, their own creations, their own nation, their own identity, their own land, their own wealth, their own power, to the exclusion of seeing the divine sparks of life in others and the world around them, then the world becomes a dead place, a place to exploit, to ravage, to abuse, to decimate, to control. Such a mindset, furthermore, alienates humanity from a larger sense of purpose and meaning. If all there is is ourselves and what we decide we need, then God’s blessings cannot penetrate our hearts.
And that is what God, through Jeremiah in this haftorah, ultimately wants. God wants humanity’s heart again. God wants humanity to turn to our Creator once again with the passion of a first love, to be willing to do anything to develop and nourish a deep relationship with the world as a place filled with beauty and life:
Go proclaim to Jerusalem: Thus said God: 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 a call to humanity to return to our source of humanness, to become, once again, God’s lover, to become, as the metaphor shifts, the servants (lit. priests) of God’s world. This is why Jeremiah’s lineage is so crucial at the opening of this passage. Jeremiah the priest, is tasked with confronting Jerusalem, calling out to every nation in the world, to recapture the heart of humanity, to re-fall in love with the Creator, and to see ourselves as custodians of that world, God’s sanctuary. We live in an idolatrous time. How fitting that Jeremiah’s haftorah is read during these weeks. May we learn from his wisdom.