Haftarah Parashat Matot-Masei
July 14, 2018 | 2 Av 5778
Jeremiah 2:4 – 3:4
In this week’s haftarah, the second of the 3 special haftarot which precede Tisha b’Av, Jeremiah expresses God’s bitterness over the nation’s religious disloyalty. God had redeemed them and settled them in their land. The people, in return, both betrayed Him and, even worse, ignored Him by turning to the false gods of their neighbors. Jeremiah cites this as the reason for their eventual downfall as a nation. Out of this bitterness was born an incredibly haunting, even horrifying statement in God’s name: “Though you wash with natron (soap) and use much lye (exceedingly harsh detergent), your guilt is ingrained before Me (God), declares the Lord God” (2:22) The Targum Yonatan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, translates the verse this way: “like a permanent stain that will not come clean, so, too, your sins are great before Me (God)” But was this statement really intended to imply that the sins of the nation were indelible and that there was no room for making amends?
The Talmud relates a story about a famous sage and heretic, Elisha ben Abuya, who struggled over this very question: “Our Rabbis taught: Once Aher (Elisha ben Abuya) was riding on a horse on the Sabbath (a Shabbat violation) with Rabbi Meir (his longtime student) walking behind him in order to learn Torah from him. [Aher] said to him: Meir, return, for I have already measured by the paces of my horse that you have reached as far is allowed on Shabbat. Rabbi Meir replied: You, too, should ‘return’ [implying that Aher should repent]! [Aher] answered: Have I not told you that I have already heard from behind the Veil (a heavenly voice): ‘Return you backsliding children’ (Jeremiah 3:22) – except Aher. [R. Meir] prevailed upon him and took him to a schoolhouse. [Aher] said to a child: Recite for me thy verse! [The child] answered: ‘There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked. (Isaiah 48:22) He then took him to another schoolhouse. [Aher] said to a child: Recite for me thy verse! He answered: ‘Though you wash with natron and use much lye, your guilt is ingrained before Me (God), declares the Lord God‘” (adapted from Hagigah 15a)
From his experiences, Elisha ben Abuyah concluded that his situation was hopeless – that all of the doors to repentance and reconciliation with God were closed. When the child repeated the verse from our haftarah, it simply reinforced his assertion. He felt religiously and psychologically boxed in and acted accordingly, much to the chagrin of his student, Rabbi Meir.
But despite Elisha ben Abuyah’s impression, a later verse makes clear that 2:22 was just hyperbole, to jar people into an awareness of the repercussions of their actions. In 4:1-2. Jeremiah says “If you return, O Israel, declares the Lord, if you return to Me… in sincerity, justice and righteousness, nations shall bless themselves by you and praise themselves by you.” (4:1-2) Or, put succinctly, never say to yourself, never – the doors of repentance are always open.