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(Jeremiah's prophecy to the Jews states) 'Through your own fault, you will lose the inheritance that I gave you, and I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know.' (Jeremiah 17:4)
The prophet Jeremiah lived during the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth century BCE, and he lived to witness the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. He was active during the reigns of five different kings of Judah: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah - to four of whom he brought messages from G-d.
From the text of his book, he appears to have had only one task, to which he applied himself single-mindedly. That was to warn the people that Judah would be destroyed unless they, the Jews, repented.
Jeremiah was neither allowed to marry (16:1-2), nor to commiserate with his people. His dramatic conveyance of the Word of G-d to the Jews did not win him popularity, and he was reviled, beaten, and imprisoned. He was threatened with death more than once, and his would-be assassins almost succeeded. He survived, only living to see the Temple destroyed, the wealthier classes exiled to Babylon, and himself dragged over the border to Egypt, where he remained until his death.
The text of the Haftara is an extremely powerfully worded rebuke and message of doom to the Jews, who reverted to idolatry after the death of King Josiah. He warns them of the dire consequences flowing from the imminent Babylonian invasion of the Holy Land, just before their first attack in 597 BCE. The scene to the Haftara is set some verses before its opening, in the passage where G-d commands Jeremiah not to take a wife. That is to demonstrate to the errant Jews the futility of bringing children into the world at such a time: 'They will not be lamented or buried, but they will be like dung upon the ground. They will perish by sword and famine, and their corpses will be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts on earth. … Great and small alike shall die in this land. They shall not be buried.' (16:4-6)
The actual Haftara begins with a message to all humanity - that eventually nations will come to acknowledge the futility of idolatry and recognize that 'My name is indeed the L-rd.' (16:21) But that will be in the future. Evil was deeply enough ingrained in the Jewish people for Jeremiah's word from G-d to declare: 'Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his spots? You too (the Jews) are used to evil and cannot do good! Therefore I will scatter you like straw flying before the desert wind.' (13:23-4)
The Haftara thunders in that spirit. The idolatry will cause 'perpetual fire to come from My nostrils' (17:4). Elsewhere the text relates the type of idolatry of the time - human sacrifices, practiced in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, on the western side of what today is the Old City of Jerusalem. They 'filled this place with innocent blood, they built shrines to Baal, to burn their sons in fire as burnt offerings to Baal.' (19:4-5) The word of G-d roars: against both the cult of idols, and the cult of Man - where he relies entirely on his own physical and mental prowess - even to the degree of unjustly exploiting others: 'Like a partridge which hatches eggs that it did not lay, so is one who amasses wealth unjustly.' (17:11) Man should not place his faith in his own efforts alone, but attach himself to the Eternal Source. That will make him 'like a tree planted by water, which sends its roots forth by a stream… its leaves are fresh… it has no care in a year of drought, and it does not stop producing fruit.' (17:8) Man's attaching himself to his Creator - his source - means he has built himself a pipeline through which His support can flow through to him, and on which he may always rely.
The role of the last verse: 'Heal me G-d and I will be healed, help me and I will be helped, because You are my praise,' (17:14) is disputed between the commentaries. The Radak understands the use of the singular as referring to Jeremiah himself - he prays for being healed from the attacks of his enemies, related in detail later on in his book. Other commentators take the singular as a reference to the Jewish people as a whole. The prayer asks G-d to assist the people, who have sunk so deeply into idolatry and corruption, to repent and return to Him. As Jeremiah exclaims elsewhere: 'Bring us back to you, O G-d, and we will return!' (Lam. 5:21)
The text containing the opening words of Jeremiah's rebuke to the Jews within the Haftara seems to suddenly change person.
It relates the treacheries of Judah in the grammatical third person: 'The guilt of Judah is inscribed with a stylus of iron… it is engraved on the tablets of their hearts and on the horns of their (idolatrous) altars' (17:1)
Yet it shifts to the second person when stating the punishment in store for the Jewish people: 'I will hand over all your wealth, your treasures, and your shrines as loot, because of your sins throughout the land. Through your own fault, you will lose the inheritance that I gave you, and I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know.' (17:3-4)
Hirsch derives a fundamental value from the sudden move from the third person to the second person. The Prophet, writes Hirsch, is underlining that the Jews are not just being disloyal to G-d, but also acting despicably in the eyes of the idolatrous Babylonians. For though they practice paganism in their own societies, they know it to be wrong amongst the Jews, who are party to Divine Revelation, and in constant receipt of His guidance. Thus the guilt of Judah is visible on their Babylonian hearts, just as it is on your Judean shrines. They expect better from the Jews, and despise them for abandoning their own sacred traditions. Thus, ironically, G-d is using the Babylonians themselves as the instrument to punish Judah for copying the ways of - those very Babylonians.
This, then, is the message that emerges. The prophet Jeremiah is impressing on the Jewish nation that the world does (and by implication, will) use double standards when looking at the Jews in the global situation. The Jews can only prosper within their Divine-determined role: as a 'Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation' (Ex. 19:6). There is no room within the Creation for it to be a nation like all other nations.
This is all the more true today, when the Israelite people are not merely on view to neighboring communities, but to the entire world population. They constantly claim that the world is against them when they get unfavorable treatment from the media. They do not understand why Israel - a country with an area virtually too small to appear on the world map - gets so much attention, when the skirmishes - horrid as they are - are relatively small compared to Rwanda or the Congo. Yes, if a single standard is used, the Israelites are victimized and hounded unfairly and unmercifully. But the Jews have a role to play within humanity - and G-d, through the Prophets did not let them forget it. Neither did He remove it from the Gentile subconscious. Thus the non-Jew instinctively feels that the Israelite can only fulfill his role within human society if he does his best to be loyal to his own traditions. He himself will eat pork chops, but he is likely to feel distinctly uncomfortable if his Jewish business partner orders a portion of the same. On the other hand he will quite understand - and respect - his request to do business at the corner table of a kosher restaurant. Similarly, a nation that claims - and is recognized to have, the Bible and other holy writ as its real heritage, becomes despised if it fails to live by its very demanding ethical teachings…
Indeed, Moses summed up the Israelite role within the Creation before his death. 'Behold I have taught you statues and judgments… for that is your wisdom and the way you will be understood in the eyes of (other) nations… they will say "only this great nation can be a wise and understanding people.'" (Deut. 4:5-6) That can be understood in the words of Balaam's prophecy: 'Behold! It is a people that shall live alone and not be reckoned among the nations.' (Num. 23:9) The world will expect them to aspire to a much higher ethical style than other communities - indeed their being 'alone' is that they themselves are the guardians of the standards, rather than being mere fellow participants in the world community. That is the only function they can aspire to on this planet. There is no alternative for the long-term prosperity of the Israelite nation - then or now.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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