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   by Jacob Solomon

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PARASHAT MASSEI (Haftara: Three Weeks) 5765. D'VAR TORAH

'Is Israel a slave or a household servant? Why has she been taken as spoil (by the enemy)?' (Jeremiah 2:14)

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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 in the Southern Kingdom of Judah 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. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, containing the Ten Tribes, had already been forced into exile a century, under the Assyrian Empire.

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. With all the sincerity and devotion he brought to his mission, however, he knew that he would not see success in his own lifetime. For G-d had already decreed that Judah would be destroyed following the activities of Josiah's grandfather, King Manasseh:

"Since King Manasseh of Judah has committed such abominations… and since he has caused Judah to sin with his idols, G-d, the L-rd of Israel says: "I will bring such disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that the ears of everyone who hears about it will ring! … I will wipe out Jerusalem … I will abandon the remnant of My inheritance and deliver them to their enemies. They will become spoil and plunder for all their enemies, because they have displeased Me and angered Me since the time when their ancestors left Egypt to this day." (Kings II 21:11-15).

And that decree remained in force despite the positive religious reforms and revival under King Josiah, during whose reign Jeremiah began his career as a prophet. As the text states:

"There was no other king like Josiah before or afterwards who returned to G-d with all his heart and soul and might. However, G-d did not turn away from His great anger of the because of everything Manasseh had done to provoke Him." (ibid. 23:25-6)

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 a continuation of the previous one, which relates the Call of G-d to Jeremiah to bring His word to the decision-makers and people of Judah. G-d had made them His special people, but they preferred not to recognize Him when it suited them to ignore Him, as they followed the cultures of the surrounding pagans. Whilst false prophets were spreading false hope in a Judea replete with idolatry, human sacrifices, and gross social injustices, Jeremiah was being prepared by G-d to remind them of things they preferred not to know about. And they would not welcome him with open arms. His deliveries would cause him to be ostracized, imprisoned, tortured, and narrowly escape with his life. "Have no fear of them," said G-d, "For I am with you to deliver you." (1:8)

Jeremiah condemned the lifestyles of Judea, with images at the grass roots of life in Judea. They had abandoned G-d as a life-giving force - 'the fountain of living water' (2:13) in favor of the 'broken cisterns' of idolatry, which failed to bring them any real contentment in the long run. Their travels to, and associations with, the paganism of the great powers of Egypt and Assyria did not enable to share in their temporary success, but instead roused G-d's anger as Judea betrayed its own special identity as a people 'holy to G-d, the first fruit of His harvest'. (2:3) Indeed, Judea is compared to a fine vintage of grapes that becomes debased into an inferior, common, wild vine. And Judea dishonors its own unique, exalted, and G-d-revealed special persona in preference to following the latest contemporary fads and fashions: 'under every verdant tree, you recline like a whore' (2:23)… 'like a lustful she-camel' (2:24).

Jeremiah is castigating the surviving Southern Kingdom for its idolatry. Yet he does so it in such a way to be most effective: by striking images at the heart of their daily life, namely within the realms of power and politics, good food and wine, and sex. He is not condemning any of those things per se. But he vividly shows, with considerable sarcasm, how impotent and yet revolting they become when harnessed to serving idols and foreign cults. For the idolaters are those who 'said to wood, "You are my father," and to stone, "You gave birth to me." … but in their hour of disaster they cry to Me, G-d, "Arise and save us!'" (2:27) They know that the pieces of wood and stone and the foreign cults they represent will do nothing them to help them, and they will find themselves returning to their Creator when they need Him. But He will spurn them with "Let them (the idols you made) arise and save you in your hour of calamity."' (2:28)

G-d will punish Judea accordingly. And when, through their sufferings, they experience the consequences of their idolatry and pursuance of harmful foreign cults, they will realize the true nature of the path of the Torah, realizing that He is indeed their true 'Father and Master of the youthfulness of His People.' (3:4)

D'var Torah

The text of the Haftara really falls into three parts. It begins with a poignant description of how Judea has abandoned G-d - without just cause. As G-d Himself later exclaimed through Jeremiah "Have I (G-d) been a desert or a land of darkness to Israel? Why do My people say, 'We are distant from you, and we will no longer come to You'?" (2:31) It continues with the notion that Judea will be punished, and then finally finishes with further details of Judea's unfaithfulness to G-d - jumping a few verses to show that when they really suffer the consequences of having abandoned their Creator, they will realize their folly and return to G-d, their Father.

Underlying Jeremiah's message are the fears of assimilation - and the dangers of exchanging a lifestyle focused on G-d's Revealed Torah for current theories, material progress, fads, and fashions. Jeremiah is not attacking material progress, but the dangers, fully realized, of Israel severing itself from its eternal roots in the process. He accepts the use of wood and stone, but not as a deity - not as a medium out of which a new technology may give birth and nurture a new pagan society. He does not condemn friendship, but he thunders at 'loving strangers and following them' - searching for foreign peoples with pagan worship and lifestyles (Daath Hamikra). The holy roots of the Jews and the pagan ones of the idolaters are inherently incompatible, and the Jews will suffer: turning from being a 'choice vine' (2:21) producing the finest vintage, to a common 'wild grape' (ibid.) that any respectable wine producer would not even look twice at. And betraying the fundamentals of their very essence, they will arouse the contempt of the very nations whose 'high society' they yearn to cultivate, leading to their contempt and ultimate captivity - so that onlookers will say: 'Is Israel a slave or a household servant?' (2:14) - possibly meaning 'a slave to the Gentile fads and a household servant in the ways they submit, and are forced to submit, their very being to those Gentiles'.

The implications of the Haftara point to the terms under which the Jews may integrate with Gentiles. They may do so only in so far that they may remain a 'choice vine' to G-d. This may be illustrated with the fact that despite the Talmud's extolling the virtues of Torah im Derech Eretz (a lifestyle of Torah with a worldly occupation), no less a personality than Rabbi Israel Salanter, a sweet-minded and tolerant personality, rent his garments when his son left for university to study Mathematics. It was not the Mathematics, but the values contra to Torah teaching - moving from a 'cultivated choice vine' to a 'common wild one' that terrified him.

This also explains the preference of the Netziv to close the Yeshiva of Volozhyn, rather than accepting the Czarist ukase registering it as a high school, demanding that secular studies must be included in the curriculum. In his response, he was known to have said that such a move within walls of the Yeshiva would fundamentally change the identity of the Torah-permeated institution. 'There is no more loathsome creature than one who goes mad. And there is no more contemptible Jew than one who voluntarily forfeits his own dignity.' He no doubt knew the well-documented tendency (see the poetry of Bialik - especially 'Levadi' and 'Hamatmid') for some students to study clandestinely and become influenced by secular materials within the walls of the Yeshiva. And he saw that they would be vehicles towards the well-known nineteenth century enlightenment perceived as hostile to traditional religious observance… destroying, inter alia, the fundamental roots of Judaism in the way described by Jeremiah.

On Tuesday June 2nd 2002, the London Evening Standard carried a serious article on the pre-war (non-observant) wave of German-Jewish immigrants that moved to Britain. It described them as unrecognizable as Jews, but composed of 'educated and enquiring scholars, to whom scholarship and high culture were of paramount importance.' The Torah ideal may accept all that, but only as expressions within the disciplined framework - of the Torah itself…

[The eagerness for Jews to 'modernize' in the spirit condemned by Jeremiah may be illustrated by the following story from the life of the Malbim (1809-1879). Much of his life was troubled by communal leaders and private individuals who wanted fundamental reforms in Judaism during the nineteenth century. These would enable the Jews to blend and merge their identities within the ideologies and lifestyles of the current wave of the Enlightenment.

One leading assimilationist was called up to the Reading of the Torah. He pronounced the traditional blessing: 'Blessed art thou O L-rd our G-d… who has chosen us from all nations and given us the Torah…"

The Malbim gave a wry grin. "Lucky fellow! Because He gave the Torah to the Jews he can turn his back on it and ignore it. What would he have done if He gave it to the Gentiles? He would have kept strictly to it, to be a Gentile amongst Gentiles!"]

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Also by Jacob Solomon:
Between the Fish and the Soup

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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