May 20, 2006
Jeremiah\’s prophetic message opens with a declaration of faith in God\’s protective power: \”O Lord, my strength (uzi) and stronghold (umauzi), my refuge (umnusi) in times of trouble (beyom tzara) to You nations shall come from the ends of the world and say: \’Our fathers inherited utter delusions, things that are futile and worthless\’.\” (Verse 19)
Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provence) seems to capture Jeremiah\’s message. He asserts that the prophet addresses God directly, in the face of those amongst his own people who refuse to acknowledge its truth: \”You, God, are my strength from those who war with me and I flee to you in the time of my troubles. Those whom I reproach for idolatry do not want to repent their wrong ways. I know that there will come a day when even the distant nations will return and come to You [God] from the far corners of the world to this place [the Temple] and announce that their ancestors had inherited lies and vanity. All of this will take place in the days of the Messiah.\”
The following midrash uses this verse in an interesting religious argument between God and David. David represents his oppressed people before God: Before You [God] redeemed our forefathers from Egypt, they did not declare Your strength. They did so only after they were redeemed: \”The Lord is my strength and song.\” (Exodus 15:2) But I, David, am different. Even though you have not redeemed me yet, still, I declare Your strength, as it says: \”You are the God of my strength.\” (Psalm 43:2) Even more so, I declare that You are not only my strength but also my stronghold, as it is written: \”O Lord, my strength and my stronghold.\” (Jeremiah 16:19) So, \”why should I walk in gloom?\” (Psalm 43:2) Redeem me as You redeemed my forefathers from Egyptian oppression. (Adapted from Midrash Tehillim 43:1 – Vatican 76 manuscript)
This midrash confronts a serious religious problem. It asks God why those in the generation of the author have not been redeemed even though their faith in God seemed to exceed that of the generation that was redeemed from Egypt. The logic of this argument was meant to convince God of His responsibility to rescue His charges in this situation, as well, since they most certainly merited it.
The Jewish tradition does not shy away from asking God hard questions or making God ponder the logic of His position when we sense some unfairness in it. There is comfort and solace in this ability to challenge God just as He challenges us. This is the way it is in caring relationships. He has expectations of us and never ceases to challenge us to better ourselves. As we see in this midrash, it is also very Jewish to have expectations of Him and make our challenges to Him every bit as serious as when He challenges us.
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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