Jeremiad

March 23, 2019

How much attention do we pay to the Haftorot? I know of some people in this shul who leave the premises during the Haftorot for an early Kiddush.

But the Haftorot raise interesting questions.

Who chose which Haftorah to affix to which Parsha and why? The answer to this question is shrouded in mystery. Apparently it was the men of the Great Assembly.

Often, their reasoning is apparent. There are thematic connections between Haftorah and Parsha. But is there an overall scheme, a broader message in the selections of the Haftorot that are attached to the Parshiot?

If I dwell primarily on today’s Haftorah and its connection to the Parsha I am at best proposing a hypothesis. An example of one cannot provide an answer to this question.

My hypotheses is that the Haftorot like all of Tanach after the first five books of the Torah remind us that the great project that Moshe set out for the generation that leaves Egypt and their descendants largely fails.  The failure is at two levels – national and moral.

The national failure is that command of all the territory G-d promises the children of Israel is only achieved for a very short time. Even then it is a struggle. For most of the period after Joshua and the Israelites enter the land until the destruction of the first Temple, the capture of the land is partial and incomplete.   

Much more important is moral failure. The chroniclers of the period blame the people of Israel and Judea and their leaders for this failure. It comes about because they are not loyal to the word of Hashem. They are not faithful and upright in their ways.

Ultimately moral failure brings about the destruction first of the Kingdom of Israel and then the Kingdom of Judea. The Jews are scattered throughout and the exile commences. The reason is that the leaders and people of both Kingdoms failed to deliver on the vision that Moshe sets forth in the first five books of the Torah.

Like many Haftoroth, this week’s Haftorah illustrates this thesis of moral decrepitude and destruction.

The author of this week’s haftorah is Yirmiyahu. Yirmiyahu the weeper for along with his own prophetic book the Talmud alleges that he wrote Eichah. Yimiyahu, the political story teller and spinner, for the Talmud also alleges he wrote the Melachim, the book of Kings. Yirmiyahu from whose name is derived the word jeremiad which is defined as a long literary work,  in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a tone of sustained invective, which contains a prophecy of society's imminent downfall.

Along with Yeshayahu and Yehezkel Yirmiyahu is considered a major prophet. Yeshayahu’s epoch was approximately 760-673 BC.  He witnessed the destruction of the Israelite kingdom and the Assyrian captivity in 722BC. Seven Israelite kings reigned during this period and Judah had five. A rating of these kings I found on the Internet listed all the Israelite kings as evil, while the kings of Judah alternate some being good and evil or evil and good, some being pure good, and some being pure evil.

The epoch of Yirmiyahu starts 23 years after Yeshayahu’s death and it extends from 650 to 582BC. It overlaps somewhat with the epoch of Yehezkel, which starts in 620, 30 years after Yirmiyahu, and extends to 570, 12 years beyond Yirmayahu.  Both prophets witness and survive the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC and the start of Babylonian captivity.  

There are five kings of Judah in the period when Yirmiyahu and Yehezkel prophesize. The first Josiah, son of the evil King Amon, is by all accounts a good king.  He reigned for 31 years from 641 to 610BC and instituted major reforms. He came to power at age 8 after his father’s assassination. 

While his grandfather, King Manasseh brought idolatry into the Temple service, Josiah renovated the Temple. During the renovation, the High Priest discovered a Torah scroll. Josiah then called for the exclusive worship of Hashem and he removed the worship of Baal from the Temple. However, the four sons that followed him and reigned from 608 to the Temple’s destruction in 586 were all corrupt –according the Internet’s rating purely evil  

Yirmiyahu’s prophecy takes place in this period.  It is a period of renovation and reform, a period of great excitement and hope followed by disenchantment.  Sound familiar?

The words Yirmiyahu speaks in this week’s haftorah, as far as I can tell are typical of his message. While Parsha Zav sets forth in great detail all the minutia of the sacrifices that were to be performed – the daily sacrifice, the sacrifice for sins and atonement, and the sacrifices for thanksgiving and gratitude – Yirmiyahu, like other prophets before him, castigates the people for abandoning Hashem and forgetting the true purpose of our relationship to Hashem.

This relationship in the words of Yirmiyahu and that of other Prophets is not to bring sacrifices but to thoroughly execute justice, not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and widow, and not shed innocent blood. 

Yirmiyahu is very hard on the people. Listen to what he says about them in this week’s Haftorah.

“…they followed their own counsels and the fancies of their evil heart; they went backwards and not forward. From the day your forefathers left the land of Egypt to this day… they would not listen and became... evil. “

The people are to be “cutoff and cast away.”  Hashem has forsaken and rejected them for the detestable things they brought in the Temple and for practicing the worst abomination of all, child sacrifice, outside of it.

For these reasons, Yirmiyahu spares nothing in cursing the people. He declares that the voice of mirth and joy, kol sason vekol simcha, will cease from the cities of Judah and the streets of Yerushalayim. He proclaims that the bones of the people and their rulers will be taken from their graves and become like dung upon the earth.                 

This message is so highly critical that the compilers of the Haftorat seem to have to soften it. They take what we think will be comforting material from elsewhere in Yirmiyahu and place it at the end of today’s Haftorah.

In this material Yirmiyahu asks of the wise, mighty, and rich not to glory in what they have, but to know and understand that G-d’s aim is Hesed, Mishpat, and Zedakah – mercy, justice, and righteousness.

Rather than this material being comforting it seems to me that it only reinforces Yirmiyahu’s harsh words.

If you gaze at the Haftorah from Parsha Mishpatim, which also comes from Yirmiyahu, you will see that the compilers of the Haftorot also take material that is out order and place it at the end of the Parsha. As far as I could tell they do this for no other Prophet.

That is because Yirmiyahu is a very hard pill to swallow. Maybe he is best meant for Ekah and Tishabav.

Indeed, the compilers of Haftorat seem to have had some distaste for Yirmiyahu’s message. I did a quick and dirty count of haftorat during a typical Jewish year. Yirmiyahu is assigned only 6. In contrast, Yeshayhu gets 19, Yehezkel 17, and the Minor Prophets 12. All the remaining 32 Haftorot come from material found in Joshua through Melachim.  

In my pre-historic day school education in Pittsburgh we were pretty good at learning the early books of the tanach, and we tried hard to master some gemorah, but we never got up to the Neveim so I have never formally learned Yirmiyahu. I am still trying to understand him and the other Prophets as best I can.  There is much I need to understand better.

Yet, I think one thing stands out. We still must be wary of our ability to rule ourselves now that we have returned to the land miraculously after so many years.

We must wonder if we can live up to the ideals of Yirmiyahu, the ideals  of practicing mercy, justice, and righteousness  Recall that what Yirmiyahus means by executing justice is not to oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and widow, and not to shed innocent blood. If we do not live up to these ideals, will our fate – if not now but sometime in the future – can I even say it -- be not unlike our ancestors who twice lost sovereignty over the land of Israel?

That indeed is a heavy message. And it may be why the compilers of the Haftorah did not want us to hear from Yirmiyahu so much. They wanted to spare us such a terrible thought.  But they did not keep out Yirmiyahu entirely.

So, let us hope in the end that we are attentive and take his message seriously.  And, if we must be part of the Kiddush club, lets at least try to give the Haftorot a good read.

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