July 30 , 2005
This week\’s haftarah is the first of three haftarot of affliction (T\’lata d\’poranuta) which mark the Shabbatot between Shiva Asar b\’Tammuz (17th of Tamuz), the day that marks the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in the final days of the Second Temple and Tisha B\’Av (9th of Av), the day marking the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. These three weeks are a period of mourning and national introspection. The haftarot for this period include two from the Jeremiah, the major prophetic figure of the end of the first commonwealth and the destruction of the First Temple and one from the opening chapter of the book of Isaiah, which speaks of the nation\’s disloyalty to God.
Jeremiah\’s first set of prophecies form this week\’s haftarah. It speaks of the inevitable Babylonian invasion. The sages, in their interpretation of this passage, often do not focus on the horrendous behavior of the marauding enemy. Rather, they emphasize those aspects of the nation\’s behavior which in their minds wrought the national tragedy. It is not unusual for the sages to search every nook and cranny of the text for clues in this respect. Since this particular haftarah does not speak directly on this point, rabbinic textual playfulness provides a more than plentiful source for messages. In the following series of midrashim, sages from the Talmudic period used the introduction of the prophecy – \”The words (divrei) of Jeremiah\” as a surprisingly rich source in order to identify the sins that led to national tragedy.
\”The words (devrei) of Jeremiah\” – Said the Holy One to Jeremiah: \’Go say to the children of Israel: Repent! And if not, I will destroy my Temple.\’ They said: \’If He destroys it [the Temple] won\’t it be His own Temple that He destroys. So thus said the Holy One Blessed Be He: \’Behold I will destroy My Temple and My words will be carried out by Jeremiah.\” (Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 13:8 Mandelbaum ed. p. 230) This midrash is based on a play on words. The consonants of the word \”devrei\” means \”words\” but the same consonants \”d v r\” can also form the word \”devir\” – another name for the Temple. This \”game\” is used to reinforce the idea that Israel\’s fate, both physical and spiritual is linked to its behavior.
This message is reinforced by the different drashah on the same word: \”Another interpretation: The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Jeremiah: \’My commandments (dvarei), I demand of them, Jeremiah. I said to them: \’I am the Lord your God.\’ (Exodus 20:1) However, they did not carry out this command and instead said: \’Saying to a piece of wood, you are my father.\’ (Jeremiah 2:27) I said to them: \’Do not have any other god before Me.\” (Ex. 20:3) They did not carry it out. But rather, \”worshipping the host of heaven on the roof.\’ (Zephaniah 1:5) I said to them: \’Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.\’ (Ex. 20:7) They did not carry it out. Instead, \’Surely they swear falsely.\’ (Jeremiah 5:2) I said to them: \’Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.\’ (Ex. 20:8) Again, they did not carry it out. But rather, \’They have despised My holy things and profaned My Sabbath.\’ (Ezekiel 22:8) I said to them: \’Honor you father and your mother.\’ (Ex. 20:12) And they do not do it. Instead, \’In you they have taken lightly father and mother.\’ (Ez. 22:7) I said to you: \’Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal.\’ (Ex. 20:13) But they do not do this. Instead, \’You steal, murder, and commit adultery.\’ (Jer. 7:9) I said to them: \’You shall not witness falsely against your neighbor.\’ (Ex. 20:15) But they do not do this. Instead, \’They bend their tongue their bow to falsehood.\’ (Jer. 9:2) I said to them: \’You shall not covet.\’ (Ex. 20:14) But they transgressed this statement: \’They covet fields and steal them, houses and take them away.\’ (Micah 2:2) (Adapted from Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 13:8. pp. 230-1)
The point of this word play: \”devrei – words of\” – \”dvarei – My words\” is to draw a connection between Israel\’s observance of God\’s commandments and their fate. The rabbis could not emphasize enough on a religious/ pedagogic level their sense that one\’s fate is causally linked to the way one lives. This applies on an individual level and on a national level. This is a message Jews should take to heart. It is also a message that should not be lost on the rest of the world.
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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