Haftarah Parashat Behar – Behukkotai
(outside of Israel)
Jeremiah is hard on his nation. He recognizes their sins and has the foresight to understand the repercussions of his people’s wrongheadedness. Still, it is hard to convince his fellows of the implications of their tragic ways. The more he tries, the deeper they become mired in their wrongdoing and false beliefs. Finally, in exasperation, Jeremiah lets loose with a remark of frightening implications: “The sin of Judah is written with a stylus of iron, engraved with a hard point, on the tablet of their heart and upon the heart of their altar.” (17:1) Jeremiah has informed them that their cause is lost because their sinful nature is marked indelibly upon their hearts, rendering any attempt to alter their negative state impossible.
This is an existentially untenable thought. It does not allow for change or forgiveness. Taken at face value, Jeremiah’s statement has sealed the fate of his fellows. Once tainted, there is no coming clean. This disturbing thought presented an opportunity for a fantastic midrashic dialogue between God and Israel over this seemingly hopeless condition: “When Israel stood before God for judgment, they said before Him: ‘Master of the Universe, the heavens and earth testify against us regarding our sins… God replied: ‘I shall remove them’ [namely, God will disregard their testimony.] Israel responded: ‘But still, our name is associated with disloyalty to You.’ To which God answered: ‘I will give you a new name.’ Again. Israel said: ‘But, You will remember!’ God retorted: ‘I will forget your earlier sins.’ Israel answers: ‘In Your heart, you will remember.’ God responds: ‘I will not take it to heart’. Israel responded [with the verse from out haftarah]: ‘But it is written before You, as it is written: The guilt of Judah is written with a stylus of iron.’ God responds: ‘Things that are written can also be erased and since I (God) wrote it, I can also erase it! As it is written: ‘In those days and at that time, declared the Lord, the sins of Israel shall be sought and there shall be none.’ (Jeremiah 50:20)” (adapted from Midrash Tanaim 32:1 Hoffman ed. pp. 180-1)
This midrash responds directly to the quandary presented by Jeremiah’s statement. In this midrash, God realized that it is not tenable to leave human beings with an inability to repent, change, and be forgiven – no matter what their stage in life. The God of the midrash countermands the words of Jeremiah and ensures us that this possibility always exists. There is always room to come clean and become new.
For Discussion: What is the consequence for an individual who believes that they can never truly be forgiven? What is the consequence for society?
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: