Haftarah Parshat Matot (Jeremiah 1:1-2:3)
July 19, 2014 / 21 Tammuz 5774
This week’s haftarah is the first of three special haftarot which precede Tisha b’Av – the ninth of Av – the day that we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the loss of Jewish self-government, in the First Commonwealth at the hands of the Babylonians and in the Second Commonwealth at the hands of the Romans. Towards the end of the First Commonwealth, God sent a prophet named Jeremiah to warn the people of the impending disaster in the hopes of averting it through the people’s repentance. God initiated the prophet with these words: “Before I created you in the womb, I selected you. Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.” (1:5)
These words, meant to instill confidence in the young prophet, set off an interesting debate among commentators to the text. This verse indicated to one midrashic author that Jeremiah, like other prophets (in the imagination of this darshan) was born circumcised since such a sign was indicative of perfection. (See Midrash Tehillim 9:7 Buber ed. p. 84 addendum in certain manuscripts) Rashi infers from this verse that God had already chosen Jeremiah as a prophet from the beginning of creation: “The Holy One Blessed be he showed Adam each generation and its prophets.”
Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) examined this idea from a philosophical perspective: “My father wrote: When God created the four foundational elements, he made known his (Jeremiah’s) natural potential and afterwards brought forth the potential into action.’ This interpretation poses a question. Can’t this also be said of all of the prophets and everyone who is righteous, and [for that matter] even the wicked – namely, that before he created them, he knew them and recognized them? [Since this is the case, what then is meant by God’s words to Jeremiah?] Rather, it comes to teach that his father and mother were careful in holiness and purity at the time of his conception so that he might become a prophet.” Kimche then goes on to quote Maimonides: “This is the case of all prophets – it is impossible to become a prophet without natural preparation… so that the [potential] prophet will be ready to be educated for the role. One might ask, why this was not mentioned regarding any prophet other than Jeremiah. One could answer that since Jeremiah refused to accept God’s mission, God informed his of his preparation.”
We learn from this passage that the idea of “nature versus nurture” had already been discussed in the time of Maimonides. Maimonides, in his interpretation of this verse, notes the contribution of both factors in raising children. He asserts that in order to be exceptional, there is a need for the natural prerequisites in order for education to take hold. How parents live makes a difference in what their children become. Advice we should all consider throughout our lives.