by Jacob Solomon
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'If only I were in the desert, an inn for travelers, so I could leave my people and go away them… Let everyone beware of his friend… every friend goes around gossiping. One man cheats another… they have trained their tongues to lie, and they tire themselves out acting crookedly… In their deceit, they refuse to acknowledge Me, says G-d.' (Jeremiah 9:1-5)
The prophet Jeremiah lived during the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth century BCE. His personally witnessed account of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE forms the Book of Lamentations, the main text read on the Fast of Av. 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 Lord 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 leaves a very bitter taste, in keeping with the spirit of the Fast of Av. The land of Judah will be utterly desolate - 'no grapes on the vine and no figs on the fig tree… everything (G-d) had given them - gone' (8:13). G-d indeed would 'not turn away in His great anger' (Kings II 23:26). And He says why over here, through the Prophet: 'Because they abandoned My Torah which I had given them… they followed their stubborn hearts and idolatrous practices in the footsteps of their ancestors (9:12-13).'
By the time they sense the enemy from afar - in the shape of Babylonians under the ultra-powerful Nebuchadnezzar, - it will be too late. G-d's abandoning His protection to His People will be their just deserts for the people's widespread corruption, having contributed to make a society where no-one can trust anyone else: 'They bend their tongues like bows and grow powerful in the Land through falsehood and not truth' (9:2). They have personal agendas of their own to follow - ignoring both G-d 'they do not know Me' (ibid.), and the realities of other people (9:4) who depend on them (implied in 9:2).
Thus the people of Judah will suffer the ultimate in death and exile. 'Carcasses… will fall as dung as on the fields, like sheaves behind the reaper, with no-one to gather them in' (9:21). And the survivors 'be scattered among the nations which neither they nor their ancestors knew' (9:15). And the Holy City of Jerusalem will become 'ruins, a den for jackals' (9:10).
G-d's punishment, however, is for the ultimate good of the people of Judah. He 'will refine them and test them' - put them through the agonies of defeat, decimation, and exile so that they will come to appreciate what they have lost owing to their inappropriate behavior whilst still in the Holy Land. In the long term, they will become worthy of the Return.
Jeremiah delivered this message from G-d to the people of Judah when things were still going well. He called on the women mourners to 'hurry… and start lamenting for us' (9:16-17) as a means of impressing the grim future in store.
For, as the end of the Haftara warns, success may only be superficial in the eyes of G-d. 'The wise man should not glory in his wisdom, the warrior in his bravery, or the rich man in his riches.' (9:22) These in themselves are not the ultimate achievements of individuals in their short stay on Earth. What is the ultimate achievement is the long struggle in bringing oneself closer to one's Creator: 'Let those who wish to glory, do so in knowing and understanding Me, for I am G-d who acts kindly, justly, and righteously on Earth. For these things please Me, says G-d'. (9:23).
The text of the Haftara shows Jeremiah virtually contemplating despair. 'If only I were in the desert, an inn for travelers, so I could leave my people and go away them' (9:1). The desert has always been a place for people whose outlook does not fit in with conventional urban society. Abraham was such a wanderer in his day; so were the abstemious Rechabites in Jeremiah's time (35:8-9) - one may possibly add the Prophet Elijah.
The idea on the face of it had its possibilities. He could attempt what people of a later era did - form colonies with a more 'honest' lifestyle in the desert, with the prospect of launching an onslaught on the cities and its 'corrupt' ways of life when the time would be ripe. And people chancing on his inn in the arid environment of the wilderness would be so grateful for his services that they would give his teachings a more sympathetic ear than the 'fat cats' in town.
But the desert is not a place where Jeremiah could have discharged his life's brief - to bring the Word of G-d to the principal rulers and decision-makers of Judah, all of whom were decidedly urban. As G-d's opening words to Jeremiah include:
'I have made you like a fortified city today, like an iron pillar and bronze walls against the entire country, the kings of Judah, and its nobles, priests, and citizens. They will fight against you, but they will not defeat you, for I am with you to save you…' (1:18-19).
Indeed G-d had ordered Jeremiah that he would 'go wherever' He 'would send him' (1:7). Why did Jeremiah suddenly yearn to run away from it all - to the desert, at this stage?
One suggestion was that Jeremiah misunderstood something in G-d's original call to him to act as a prophet, which was deliberately phrased ambiguously:
'I will punish [the people of Judah] for all their evil - for abandoning Me, offering incense to other gods, and bowing down to the work of their hands' (1:18).
The final words: 'the work of their hands' could mean two things. It could literally refer to the idols used in worship in the heathen temples that they frequented - and that is the meaning of a similar phrase in Deut. 4:28. Or it could have the broader meaning of the fruits of widespread dishonesty in a corrupt urban society.
Idolatry is an intellectual failing, a result of insensitivity to the fine, infinite, and eternal divine forces. Many people need a lifetime of hard spiritual searching to acquire the lowest levels of genuine Yirat Shamayim - respect and fear of Heaven. This was a failing that Jeremiah could address, even though he knew that he would not succeed in the short or medium term.
But he did not expect to have to fight against a society that was lacking in common decency - to such a degree that it not only caused lack of trust and social justice, but created an atmosphere whereby people would do what they wanted when they wanted and serve exclusively their own narrow selfish interests: as exemplified by: 'Let everyone beware of his friend… every friend goes around gossiping. One man cheats another… they have trained their tongues to lie, and they tire themselves out acting crookedly… In their deceit, they refuse to acknowledge Me, says G-d.' (9:1-5)
Jeremiah felt that his task would be fruitless where the bindweed of corruption strangled the fabric of society - making it impossible for person to trust someone else - including Jeremiah himself… At that stage, he was protesting that he would accomplish his ultimate mission - to bring the Word of G-d to the people - toby leaving established society and starting all over again…
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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