Haftarah Parshat Behar
May 10, 2014
10 Iyar 5774
The prophet Jeremiah lived in trying times, when his nation was on the verge of destruction. His nation was overwhelmed by despair and doubt. To quell the nation’s despondency, God prophesied to Jeremiah to redeem his ancestral property at a time when such behavior verged on the absurd, in order to show God’s people that despite their tragedy there was still room for hope and that they would endure even after the oncoming tragedy.
Still, even after this symbolic act, Jeremiah himself was overcome by doubt, imploring God to save his people: “Ah, Lord God! You made the heavens and the earth with Your great might and outstretched arm. Nothing is too wondrous for You. You show kindness to the thousandth generation, but visit the guilt of the fathers on the generations after them. O great and mighty God (HaE-l hagadol hagebor) whose name is Lord of Hosts, wondrous in purpose and mighty in deed, whose eyes observe all the ways of man according to his ways and with the proper fruit of his deeds!” (32:17-18) Jeremiah continues, reminding God of His redemptive acts in the past, urging Him to take on the nation’s adversary and save His holy city. (19-26)
The sages noted that Jeremiah’s description of God in this prayer diverged from that of Moses. The following midrash attempts to draw from this some theological conclusions: “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: Why were they called men of the Great Assembly (anshei kneset hagedola)? Because they restored the crown of the divine attributes to its ancient glory.[For] Moses had come and said: ‘The great God, the mighty, and the awesome (HaE-l hagadol hagebor v’hanora).Then Jeremiah came along and said: Enemies are destroyingGod’s Temple. Where are God’s awesome deeds (norotav)? Hence he omitted[the attribute] the ‘Awesome One (hanora)’. Daniel came along and said: Enemies are enslaving God’s children. Where are His mighty deeds (gevurotav)? Hence he omitted the word‘Mighty One (gebor)’. But they (the Men of the Great Assembly) came along and said: On the contrary! Here lies [evidence of] His mighty deeds in that He suppresses His wrath inthat He extends long-suffering to the wicked. Here lie His awesome powers: For but for the fear of Him, how could one [single] nation (namely, the Jews) persist among the [many] nations! So, then, how could [the earlier] Rabbis (namely, Jeremiah and Daniel who are described here as ‘rabbis’) abolish something established by Moses? Rabbi Elazar said: Since they knew that the Holy One, blessed be He, insists on truth, they would not ascribe false [things] to Him.” (Yoma 69b)
Moses described God as “awesome”. The sages noted that Jeremiah did not use this term and ascribed its absence to Jeremiah’s inability to use this word upon observing the destruction of the Temple. Later sages, according to the Talmud’s telling, restored the words of Moses in the opening paragraph of the Amidah (HaE-l Hagadol Hagibor v’Hanorah) giving it, however, a new meaning in order to make it possible to recite honestly. The sages, then, saw great value in preserving the tradition’s formulations in the liturgy. They also understood, that each generation would have to infuse the traditions words with meaning that worked for them.
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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