Parshat Behar – Behukotai
Jeremiah offers a harsh critique of his people\’s attachment to idolatry at the beginning of chapter 17. He argues that this sin of disloyalty is engraved on the hearts of the people: \”The guilt of Judah is inscribed with a stylus of iron, engraved with an adamant point on the tablet of their hearts and on the horns of their altars\” (17:1) In the second verse of the chapter, he lets loose with a bewildering comparison which is pregnant with meaning in its very obscurity. The old JPS translation (1917), attempts to be loyal to the literal meaning of the words: \”Like the symbols of their sons are their altars [to idolatry].\” This translation seems to say that the people\’s idolatry was as dear to them as symbols of their children. Still, it is unclear that this is the meaning of the words. The new JPS translation (1985) notes the phrase\’s difficulty and makes two attempts to translate this verse. In its first attempt, it tries to capture the plain meaning of the words, linking them to the last words of the preceding verse : \”While their children remember their altars and sacred posts.\” This translation sees as sinful the children\’s perpetuation of the idolatry of their forefathers. Its second translation is based on textual emendation by the biblical scholar, H. L. Ginsberg: \”Surely the horns of their altars are as a memorial against them.\” The bottom line of this translation expresses the idea that one\’s sins offer the most potent testimony of a person\’s wrongdoings.
Earlier commentators also sought to \”infuse\” this verse with meaning. Rashi claims that this verse expresses the depth of the sinful relationship between the people and their idolatrous worship: \”The memory of their [idolatrous] altars was for them like their memory of their children – like a parent yearns for his or her child.\” Rabbi
David Kimche adds an additional interpretation to that of Rashi: \”There are those who interpret \’zchor\’ to mean \’offering\’ – the verse would therefore mean that they offered up their children on the altars.\” Kimche, however, prefers Rashi\’s interpretation.
The following Talmudic passage debates the psychological attachment of people to idolatry, using the verse from Jeremiah in the debate: Rav Judah said in Rav\’s name: The Israelites knew that the idols were not real, still they engaged in idolatry only that they might openly satisfy their incestuous lusts. R. Mesharshia objected: As those who remember their children, so they longed for their altars, and their graves by the green trees (Jeremiah 17:2); which R. Eleazar interpreted: As one who yearns for his son [so they yearned]? [The Talmud reaches a compromise between the two positions:] That was after they became addicted thereto. (Sanhedrin 63b)
According to Rav, people seek out idolatrous alternatives to Judaism for opportunistic motives since these alternatives allow them opportunities to satisfy appetites. Rav Mesharshia, whose opinion serves as the source for Rashi\’s interpretation of our verse, disagrees. He asserts that people might actually really believe in what the Jewish tradition considers false. This discussion concludes that the process probably starts as Rav explains and then later exhibits Rav Masharshia\’s explanation. These three alternative opinions regarding why people become alienated from Judaism offer deep insight into the human psyche and the reasons for forming attachments. It should provides food for thought for individuals and organizations concerned with these questions.
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.
The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp.
Rabbi Joel Roth, Rosh Yeshiva Emeritus .
Sponsors – The Conservative Yeshiva would like to thank the following for their generous support of the Haftarah Commentary: