Haftarah Parshat Behar
May 14, 2011
10 Iyar 5771
Parshat Behar (Jeremiah 32:6-27)
Prophets did not lead peaceful and serene lives. Their lives were tumultuous and frequently insecure. Their messages were often out of sync with what people wanted to hear and sometimes their prophecies were even difficult for the prophets themselves to comprehend. Jeremiah was unpopular because he preached that Jerusalem and its Temple would be destroyed on account of the people’s iniquities. The people were so offended by his message that he needed to be imprisoned for his own safety. If this message which God charged him to deliver was not difficult, at least it was consistent.
So when he received a different sort of prophecy, one which seemingly contradicted his previous messages, there was room for doubt: “And Jeremiah said: \’The word of the Lord came unto me, saying: Behold, Hanamel, the son of your uncle Shallum, will come to and say: Buy my field in Anatoth; for you are in line to redeem it by purchase.\’ So my cousin Hanamel came to me in the prison compound and said to me: \’Please buy my field in Anatoth, in the land of Benjamin; for the right of inheritance is yours, and you have the duty of redemption; buy it.\’ Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD. (6-8)
Is it possible for a prophet like Jeremiah to question the veracity of a prophecy that he received from God? Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel (15-16th century, Portugal, Spain, Italy) rejected this possibility: “Even though Jeremiah says: ‘Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord’ – this does not mean that he, at first, had doubts about the prophecy, questioning whether it was a prophecy or not and only afterwards was the prophecy proven true Divine. Prophets had no doubts regarding their prophecies, for each prophecy legitimated itself through the strength of his feelings.” (adapted translation)
Some modern commentators, however, approached this question differently. Professor Y. Hoffman (Israel) asserts that Jeremiah constantly attempted to ascertain the truth of his prophecies. This prophecy, in particular, created a challenge for Jeremiah since it seemed to contradict his prophecies of destruction. The fact that his cousin came to him, as prophesied, reassured him that his prophecy would come true. (See Rabbi B. Lau, Jeremiah – The Destiny of a Seer pp. 220-1 Heb.)
What is the source of the difference between these two explanations? Abrabanel saw in prophecy an ideal truth passed on to an ideal messenger who served as a vessel for that truth. Consequently there was no room for misinterpretation or doubt. Hoffman, on the other hand, sees the prophet as flesh and blood, a human being with doubts and anxieties, who faced God’s message with insecurity because of his humanity. Only when Jeremiah was assured of the truth of God’s prophecy did he appreciate its import as a message of hope in a time of despair. Understanding the humanity of the prophet, it would seem, ultimately gives us a clearer view of the message the prophet was intended to convey to his audience because it makes him an active participant in the message and not just the mouthpiece of God.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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