May 17, 2003
Jeremiah’s prophetic message offers a symbolic note of hope amidst the despair of immanent disaster. The prophet, who had been imprisoned by the king for prophesying the impending Babylonian siege and destruction of Jerusalem, was visited with a prophecy that offered a bit of hope amidst the tragedy which was to befall the Jewish people. God told the prophet to purchase the deed to the property of one of his relatives in full public view. The intent of this act was to inform the people that God had not abandoned them. Rather, the impending tragedy would be sufficiently brief that people should not be afraid to invest in the ownership of property. Though there must have been some sort of consolation in the act itself, Jeremiah does not leave the matter rest there. Instead, he offers up to God a prayer in which he praises God, using, in part, the following words: “Ah, Lord God! You made heaven and earth with Your great might and outstretched arm. Nothing is too wondrous for You! You show kindness to the thousandth generation, but visit the guilt of the fathers upon their children after them. O great and mighty God whose name is the Lord of Hosts…” (Jeremiah 32:17-19)
The sages took notice that Jeremiah’s description of God as “great and mighty” differed from Moses’ description in the Torah: “the great God, the mighty, the awesome.” (Deuteronomy 10:17) and offered an explanation in a midrash: “Rabbi Pinchas the Priest bar Hama taught: Moses instituted the order of prayer for Israel when he said: ‘The Lord your God, He is God of gods, the Lord of lords, the great God, the mighty, the awesome.’ (Ibid.) Jeremiah, in his order of prayer, said only ‘The great, the mighty God’, but not ‘the awesome God.’ Why did Jeremiah say only ‘the mighty God’? Because, he explained: ‘God, since He saw His children put in chains and His Temple destroyed, remained silent; so it is appropriate to call Him ‘mighty’ but Jeremiah did not say ‘God the awesome’ because the Temple – of which it is said: ‘Awesome is God out of His holy place’ (Psalm 68:36) was about to be destroyed…. Generations later, when the Men of the Great Assembly arose, they restored the manner of praising God’s greatness to its ancient glory, saying: ‘Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God’ (Nehemiah 9:32) Why? Because, as they explained, God remains above every praise by which people might use to describe Him.” (Midrash Tehillim 19:2)
According to this midrash, Jeremiah ‘measured’ his words before he used them to describe God. He lived in troubled times and his experiences in the world left a deep impression on him. According to Rabbi Pinchas, his experiences shaped his religious outlook and as a result, he could not use words which seemed to him inaccurate or false to describe God. Consequently, he removed one of the words of praise offered by Moses. Similarly, a religious person, in a moment of exaltation might be moved to magnify God’s praise by adding to the list adjectives used by Moses. (see Midrash Tehillim 19:2) The Sages, however, chose to use Moses’ words as the basis for the first paragraph of the Amidah prayer which we pray three times a day, not because they represented a truer description of God than Jeremiah’s but because all descriptions of God are ultimately inadequate. What makes Moses’ words more appropriate? Since Moses is a considered the Jewish tradition’s ultimate prophet, his words seemed the most effective means for communicating with God and were thus chosen to link all Jewish prayer throughout eternity.