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Haftarah Parshat Behukotai

Haftarah Parshat Behukotai & Behar- Behukotai
(Jeremiah 16:19-17:14)
May 16, 2015 / 27 Iyar 5775

In the second prophecy of this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah condemns Israel for its flagrant religious disloyalty: “While their children remember their altars (kizkor b’naihem mizbikhotam) and sacred posts by verdant trees upon lofty hills.” (17:2) The New Jewish Publication Society translation notes that the meaning of the Hebrew words which make up the first part of this verse is “uncertain”. Other modern commentators concur, concluding that there must be a flaw in the transmission of this verse (See Y. Hoffman, Jeremiah, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 392)

Rashi, along with most of the medieval commentators, read the first part of this sentence as a comparative phrase: “Just as they remember their children, so, too, they remember their idols”, namely, they love their idols just as they love their children. This interpretation is also found in the Targum Yonathan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets. It also forms the basis for one of the opinions found in a Talmudic debate over what prompted certain Israelites to worship idols: “Rav Judah said in Rav’s name: The Israelites knew that the idols were not real, but they engaged in idolatry only in order to allow themselves to openly satisfy licentious behavior. Rabbi Mesharshia objected [to this analysis, citing the verse from our haftarah]: ‘As those who remember (love) their children, so, too, they yearned for their altars, and their sacred posts by the verdant trees etc’ (17:2); which Rabbi Elazar interpreted: ‘As one who yearns for his son [so they yearned]? [The Talmud responds to this challenge: Their love for them was kindled only] after they became addicted to them.” (Sanhedrin 63:2)

This debate provides an insight into the Sages’ perception of the religious psychology of those who leave the Jewish tradition. One opinion asserts that people leave Judaism to “escape” its moral restrictions. They search for a means to divest themselves of the guilt born from what they see as the Torah’s oppressive restrictions on their all too human appetites. They search out idolatry as a “cover” for their indulgences. The second opinion objects. It holds that people are perfectly capable of adopting idolatry and believing in it passionately. This for the sages was seen as complete betrayal. Still, the Talmud cannot fathom this possibility, asserting that a Jew could not possibly volitionally believe in idolatry. Rather a person might begin by adopting it for ulterior motives and then through practice become addicted to it despite its lack of reality.

The recognition of what leads people astray is a valuable tool. It helps us to better understand ourselves and understand our message. It does not mean that we must alter our message to accommodate those who leave. It does mean, however, that we need to hone how we explain what it means to be Jewish, its value and its contribution to making a whole and better human being who lives in the presence of God.

About This Commentary

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.
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