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   by Jacob Solomon

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PARASHAT MATTOT (Haftara: Three Weeks) 5771

(G-d says to Jeremiah) "Look! I have appointed you today over nations and kingdoms, to uproot and pull down, to destroy and to demolish - and to build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:18)

Guided Tour...

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 relates G-d's Call to the young Jeremiah to be His Messenger. Like Moses, he was given no choice in the matter. "Go!" said G-d, "to wherever I send you. And speak whatever I command you!" (1:7) Indeed, those messages went from the mouth of the prophet to kings, nobles, and all the way down to the common people. Whilst false prophets were spreading false hope in a Judea replete with paganism, 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)

The Book of Jeremiah is rich in symbolism, which starts within the text of the Haftara. Already during the spiritually positive period of Josiah, the youthful Jeremiah is warned that wholesale disaster was catching up fast with the Kingdom of Judea. This was reinforced through the powerful and memorable images of quickly-ripening almond trees, and boiling pots from the direction of the enemy.

As the Book develops, Jeremiah, learns that his career would virtually be a failure - at least within his own lifetime. He was to urge them to repent, but G-d told him advance that they would not take heed. For evil, presumably even back in the reign of Josiah, 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).

That, however, was later. After G-d dramatized His Call to Jeremiah through images awakening deepest fear and gloom, He put his relationship with the Jewish people - indeed the entire Israelite Nation, in a much wider context. The Jews were not pariahs; G-d loves them. No matter what they do, He will never forget that they chose Him - and placed their entire lives in His Hands as they accepted His Code and followed Him though desert conditions that normally would have cost their lives. The Chosen People of Israel became such because they, and only they, actually chose G-d by accepting the opportunity to follow Him under all conditions when He revealed Himself to them on Mount Sinai. They thus made themselves His special people - His permanent and exclusive people. Ultimately 'evil will come' (2:3) to whoever attempts to destroy them - as history has borne out time and time again.

D'var Torah

I heard the following reason for not training to be a Rabbi:

'I would prefer to be a Prophet than a Rabbi. If I am condemned as a Prophet, I will at least know that G-d is at my elbow. But if I am I criticized as a Rabbi, I will always have that nagging doubt as to whether I have done the right thing. So until I get my Call from Above, I will continue to serve as a layman only.'

Jeremiah did receive the Call. Although his life was punctuated with suffering and tragedy, he at least did have the satisfaction of knowing that his trials and tribulations were in true cause. However, like Moses, he did not wish to be a 'Prophet to the Nations' (1:5), pleading ki na'ar anochi - 'I am a young man' (1:6). The meaning of that reason is disputed by the commentaries. Abarbanel says that Jeremiah's objection was that he believed he was too young to fulfill the role of a Prophet: he was worried that his youth and lack of maturity would prevent him from putting G-d's message in the right words. Rashi understands 'na'ar' to mean inexperienced, and thus his work as a Prophet would be ineffective: Jeremiah was in effect telling G-d "When Moses rebuked the people, he did it close to his death after he had accomplished a great deal for his people and thus he had some kind of standing with them. I do not have enough experience yet to make the Jews listen to my words of rebuke!" And the Yalkut reads even more powerful feelings behind his words of 'naar anochi' - namely that being a Prophet is a high-risk way of life. "I cannot bring prophecy to them. What Prophet went before them that they did not try to kill? They tried to stone Moses and Aaron to death. They mocked Elijah saying 'Look how he fancies himself with his hair. His name is - the hairy man!' They called Elisha the 'baldheaded man'. I cannot speak to them!" In other words, as a Prophet, would not be appreciated in his own country.

In reply to the words 'na'ar anochi' G-d did indeed convey to him that his career would be no joy ride. He reinforced that by giving Jeremiah no choice in the matter - either he would bring the message of G-d to the right places, or he would suffer terror at the hands of those very people he was required to correct (1:17).

Given that Jeremiah would see little success in his life, why did G-d emphasize it with the two images - the almond branch and the seething pot (1:11-15)? What specifically did those two visions contribute to G-d's initial charge to Jeremiah? One approach may be to apply the following idea contained in the Talmud. There, the Mishna states:

On four occasions each year the world is judged. On Pesach, G-d renders judgment on the nature and quality of the forthcoming grain harvest, on Shavuot, on the fruit harvest, on Rosh Hashanah, on all Humanity… and on Sukkot, on the forthcoming rainfall (Rosh Hashannah 1:2).

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) reconciles the apparent contradiction - if humanity in entirety is judged on Rosh Hashanah, what is the function of a second judgment on the other Festivals? In answering this question, the Talmud brings a very important principle. It is true, the Talmud points out, that the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is final, but the way it is carried out depends on the how people behave throughout the year. If the judgment was negative on Rosh Hashanah, it can be modified in a positive way. For example, if the year was decreed as a year of drought, the little water that is destined to fall may come at the most effective time. And conversely, if the judgment was positive on Rosh Hashanah, it could be modified in a negative way - the large amount of water might be subsequently decreed to fall in a destructive way - for example, all at once, causing excessive wasted runoff and soil erosion.

That is the message contained in the images of the almond plant and the seething pot: G-d's judgment against the Israelites was a negative one. But he, Jeremiah, had some power to modify the judgment - in bringing something of lasting positive value out a negative experience. This is conveyed by the two images, in the way explained below.

The almond branch was a play on words:

G-d's word came to me: "Jeremiah, what do you see?" I said, "I see the branch of the almond tree." G-d said to me: 'You have seen well, for I am resolved to carry out My Word." (1:11-12)

It is a play on the Hebrew word 'sha-ked' which can mean both 'almond' and 'resolved'.

And the vision of the boiling pot also turned out to be a message of doom:

G-d's word came to me again: "What do you see?" I said. "I see a boiling pot facing north." G-d said to me: "From the north, disaster will break loose against all the people of the Land." (1:13-14)

However, G-d chose His images of doom to teach an additional lesson. The judgment against the Jewish People* was indeed a very negative one - calamity, destruction, and exile. That was the interpretation of the images. But the actual images were not necessarily negative ones. An almond tree is quite benign: its blossoms are attractive, and its nuts are very tasty. A seething pot is also has its pleasant connotations - namely that 'Dinner is served!'

So in effect, G-d answer to Jeremiah with those two images is as follows: You will not be able to change the general decree against Jewish People. But you will be able to modify the effects of that decree for good: from despair to hope. And he indeed did that - for example his public purchase of a field at a time that the Jews were to be exiled (32:4-14) was to impress on them that however painful things were at present, they were not final - the People would return to their Land, as they indeed subsequently did. Indeed - and example of true leadership for times of great difficulty and hardship.

*Please note that the earliest Biblical reference to the People as specifically Jews, rather than Israelites, is found in Jeremiah (34:9). I have used the word 'Jew' on that basis.

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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