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Parashat Mattot-Massei

July 10, 2007

By Rabbi Jeff Hoffman

I’m a guitarist. Have been for many years. On the guitar case of one of my guitars, I have affixed a bumper sticker that reads ‘What would Jerry say?’ The ‘Jerry’ referred to is Jerry Garcia, the late lead guitarist for the greatest rock ‘n roll band the world has known, The Grateful Dead. The bumper sticker is, of course, a knock-off of a contemporary Christian saying which substitutes another name that begins with a ‘J’ for the ‘Jerry’ in this sticker. I’m thinking about the sticker on my guitar case because it applies, in a way, to the Haftarah for this Shabbat. The point of the Haftarah can be seen as ‘What would Jeremiah say?’

The haftarah for this Shabbat is the second of the T’lata DePur`anuta, ‘the three (haftarot of) (Warning of) Punishment.’ These three haftarot are always read on the three Shabbatot that precede Tisha B’Av, and consist of messages of admonition of national punishment and doom.

In the haftarah, Jeremiah speaks in God’s name, fully identifies with God, and seems to derive the passion and fire in his words from his complete identification with God’s message. The message is delivered just as Babylonia was threatening to attack and subjugate the country.

The message is that God is bereft, lonely, forlorn, feeling abandoned by God’s people, Israel. Israel has ignored God, and has embraced many gods: ‘For your gods have become, O Judah, as many as your towns!’ (Jeremiah 2:28) Jeremiah employs various emotionally-charged images to drive his point home. He has God feeling like an abandoned parent: ‘They said to wood, ‘You are my father,’ to stone, ‘You gave birth to me,’ while to Me they turned their backs and not their faces’ (Jeremiah 2:27) The picture gets uglier. Jeremiah portrays God as an abandoned lover who lashes out in rage at a partner who acts as if her only desire is do fulfill her lust with anyone who would have her: ‘Like a lustful she-camel, restlessly running about, or like a wild ass used to the desert, snuffing the wind in her eagerness, whose passion none can restrain; none that seek her need grow weary ‘ in her season, they’ll find her.’ (Jeremiah 2:24)

Only at the very end of the haftarah is a note of hope struck. Jeremiah understands God to say, ‘Just now you called to Me, ‘Father! You are the Companion of my youth.” (Jeremiah 3:4) Ninety-nine percent of the haftarah dwells on the abandoning of God by Israel and only at the end are we given the impression that there is a possibility of return and reconciliation.

What are we to make of this and how are we to react? We are to react by asking ‘What would Jeremiah say?’ If we were to read a purely historical account of the time period that Jeremiah is describing, we would read pure facts: The inhabitants of Judah at this time felt threatened militarily by Babylonia, and so, made treaties with Egypt and with Assyria. Ultimately, those alliances were of no avail, and Babylonia defeated the nation, deported many citizens, and destroyed its main religious institution, the Temple in Jerusalem.

But Jeremiah is not interested in pure facts, and neither is our tradition, which has us chant this haftarah every summer. Jeremiah and Jewish tradition are interested in Jeremiah’s words reaching our hearts. The aim is to have contemporary Israel, today’s Jews, hear Jeremiah’s words as if they are spoken directly to us’ and therefore, for us to react by asking ourselves: What may WE be doing, as individual Jews and as the Jewish People, that may deserve the kind of condemnation that Jeremiah brings? What would Jeremiah say about us? Are there any ways that WE have abandoned God to such an extent that WE deserve the kind of doom and punishment that the Jews in Jeremiah’s time experienced in the destruction of the nation and the Temple? We are called upon to react to our own actions, and to those of the larger Jewish community, in a way that is probably very different from the way we naturally react when reading, for example, news about Jews and the State of Israel in the Jewish media or in the general media. At this time of year, during ‘The’ three weeks which precede Tisha B’Av, we are called upon by this haftarah, to react very personally, very soulfully, to ‘Jewish’ news. We are called upon to look at events through Jeremiah’s eyes. How would Jeremiah react to how we, as Jewish individuals, have acted this week in response to all of the moral, spiritual, and ritual challenges that have come up? How would Jeremiah react to how our local synagogue or Jewish community has acted this week in response to those same kinds of challenges? How would Jeremiah react to how the American Jewish community in the aggregate, or the State of Israel, has acted this week? That kind of Heshbon HaNefesh, ‘accounting of the soul,’ is what is called for this week.

On Shabbat, as we reflect on our week, let us ask, ‘What would Jeremiah say?’