Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

We Have Something to Live Up To (Jeremiah 31:1-19)

Rosh HaShanah is also known as Yom HaZikaron – The day of Remembrance, in part, on account of our expectation that God will remember His loving relationship with His people and forgive them during this season of repentance. This particular theology is highlighted in the choice of the haftarah for the second day of Rosh HaShanah, which speaks of God’s intimate relationship early on with the Northern Kingdom, the people of Israel, otherwise known in Jeremiah’s prophecy as Ephraim. Jeremiah speaks of God’s desire to redeem them from exile despite their foibles on account of this special love for them. The power of this love is expressed most poignantly in the final verse of the haftarah: “Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to Me, a child that is a joy! Whenever I have turned against him, My thoughts would dwell on him still. That is why My heart yearns for him; I will receive him back in love, declares the Lord.”

The following midrashim explore the nature of this love which seemingly overrides God’s strict sense of justice:

  1. Come and see that even though Israel is multitudinous, God’s thinks of them as if they were an only child… therefore he says of them: “Once I was the son of my father, the tender only child of my mother” (Proverbs 4:3) Just as when a child is small, if he does wrong, his parent does not cast him out because he is a child but when he becomes an adult and stands on his own, if he does wrong, he casts him out, so Israel even if they accidentally sin, he accords them as if they were children… “Ephraim is a dear son to Me”
  2. All of Israel are known by the name of Ephraim, as it says: ‘For I am ever a father to Israel, Ephraim is My first born.’ (Jeremiah 31:9) Said the Holy One Blessed be He: ‘Ephraim is a dear (yakir) son to Me’ (Ibid. 20) – they are precious (b’ yoker) to me – the rabbis said: even if Pharaoh demanded a hundred talents of silver for each and every Israelite, the Holy One Blessed be He would have given it to him, but since Pharaoh did not give them over to Him, see how many lives He took of them, as it says: ‘or has any god ventured to go and take for himself one nation from the midst of another.’ (Deut. 4:34) And after they left Egypt and made the golden calf, the Holy One Blessed be He wanted to destroy them as He had done to the generation of the flood. When He confided with Moshe that He wanted to destroy them, Moses said to Him: ‘Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (Ex. 32:13). The Holy One Blessed be He remembered and said: ‘If so I reconsider’. Immediately, the nations of the world gathered and said to the Holy One Blessed be He: ‘You said You would destroy them [for their corrupt ways] like You did to the generation of the flood. So won’t You do as You said?’ The Holy One Blessed be He said to them: ‘No!’ Why? Since they are like an only child to Me, as it says: ‘Ephraim is a dear son to Me’. And I said to Moses: ‘Let Me be’ (Deut. 9:14) but instead: ‘I surely remember him’ (Jeremiah 31:9) – I surely remembered the memory of their forefathers and I forgave them. (Translated and adapted from Agadat Bereishit 6:1;3; Zichron Aharon ed. pp. 15-16)

In the first midrash, God’s strict justice is tempered by the mercy born of His remembering Israel as His beloved children. God willingly saves them on account of His parental sympathy for them. In the second midrash, he accords them mercy on account of the memory of their noble origins.

All of us are in need of mercy, love and encouragement especially during this season of repentance. It behooves us to take advantage of our “special relationship” with God not just as a means to technically “clean our slates” but also as a means to make ourselves worthy of being both God’s “children” and the children of the noble founders of our faith.    

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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