As we discussed, we have entered a three-week period of reflective renewal, and on the first Shabbos of this period, we chant the opening section of the Book of Jeremiah. The Prophet Jeremiah was also a Kohen – minister of service (Jeremiah 1:1), and in this section, Jeremiah reveals how the Compassionate and Educating One appointed to him to be a prophet:
“The word of Hashem came to me, saying: ‘Before I formed you in the belly I knew you, and before you left the womb I sanctified you; I have appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’ ” (Jeremiah 1:5)
“I have appointed you as a prophet to the nations” – Malbim, a noted 19th century sage and biblical commentator, explains that Hashem is saying to Jeremiah:
“You are not a prophet for your sake, but for the sake of the community – not for a particularistic mission, but for a general mission to all the nations.”
Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, a noted sage of the 20th century, wrote a commentary on the Book of Jeremiah, and in his explanation of the above Divine statement, he writes:
“As a prophet to the nations, his work was not to be only for the Jewish people; he was to offer himself as an earthly vessel for the wellsprings of Divine truths that were to emanate from him for the enlightenment and edification of all humankind.”
In the opening chapter, the Book of Jeremiah stresses that Jeremiah was appointed as a prophet to the nations. This raises the following question: While some of Jeremiah’s prophecies relate to the nations, the majority of his prophecies are directly related to the People of Israel – their covenant with the Torah, the failure to properly fulfill this covenant, the Divine wake-up calls to Israel through suffering and exile, and the Divine promises regarding Israel’s future physical and spiritual redemption. Why, then, is Jeremiah introduced as a “prophet to the nations”? I found the beginning of an answer in the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on the above verse:
“As the time was approaching – the Prophet himself lived through it – when Israel was to start on its path through the wilderness of nations, every word of God, directed through the Prophet primarily to Israel, was at the same time in close relationship to humankind, in general.”
Rabbi Hirsch is reminding us that whatever happens to Israel is significant to humankind. A review of the following teachings can give us a deeper understanding of our relationship to humankind:
“This is the book of the descendants of Adam… He created them male and female; He blessed them and called their name Adam” (Genesis 5:1,2).
What “book” is this statement referring to? The classical commentator, Ramban, explains: “In my opinion, this alludes to the entire Torah, for the entire Torah is an account of the descendants of Adam.” I asked my teacher, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, how he understands this explanation of Ramban, and he said:
“This means that the entire Torah – both written and oral – is the story of the reconstruction of humanity, from its fall in the Garden of Eden until its renewal in the messianic age.”
If the entire Torah is the story of humanity, then why does the Torah focus on the story of the People of Israel? An answer can be found in the following Divine proclamation to our people when we went into exile: “You are Adam” (Ezekiel 34:31). The Creator is revealing to us that the story of our journey represents the story of the human journey.
Yes, most of the prophecies of Jeremiah focus on Israel; however, since Israel’s story represents the human story, Jeremiah is introduced as “a prophet to the nations.”
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
P.S. For further elaboration on how Israel’s story represents the human story, review the opening letter of our current series which appears on our website. The direct link is: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/tzedaka/israel.htm