May 16, 2009
22 Iyar 5769
Jeremiah\’s messages alternate between despair and hope. In his message, he clearly sees himself as the harbinger of the impending destruction who is trying his very best to avert it. For him, this means making the people aware of their disloyalty to God and His covenant with them, and the social and political decay which is undermining their society. Jeremiah\’s imagery captures the magnitude of his angst over these troublesome tendencies. The people\’s attraction to idolatry is described in an obscure sentence: \”While their children remember their altars and sacred posts by verdant trees upon lofty hills.\” (17:2 NJPS translation)
The above translation follows that of the Targum Yonathon, but the rabbinic tradition seems to have understood this verse differently. Rashi explains it this way: \”Like the memory of their children so is their memory of their altars. This is like a parent who yearns for his child.\” Rabbi David Kimche (Provence 13th century) elaborates: \”Recounting stories about [these altars] is pleasant for them like recounting stories about their children since they loved the altars so.\”
These interpretations are based on the opinion of Rabbi Elazar found in a debate in the Talmud: \”Said Rav Yehuda said Rav: \’The Israelites knew that the idols were nonentities, but they engaged in idolatry only that they might satisfy their lusts.\’ Rabbi Mesharshiah objected: \’As those who remember their children, so they longed for their altars (Jeremiah 17:2) which Rabbi Elazar interpreted: As one yearns for his child [so they yearned]. This [Rabbi Elazar\’s interpretation] describes the circumstances after they became attached to the worship. Only then did they become fond of it.\” (Sanhedrin 63b adapted according to Rashi)
This little debate says something very profound about human nature. Sometimes we compromise our principles for the sake of opportunities, some good and some not so good, only to become seduced by ideas which represent the very antithesis of who we really are. Jews have faced many different kinds of idolatries in the past. Some of them have offered as enticements tremendous opportunities. Many have fallen prey to these opportunities, thinking that they could preserve their principles only to gradually embrace what they thought they were strong enough to avoid.
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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