Haftarah Parshat Mattot
July 23, 2011
21 Tammuz 5771
This Shabbat we mark the first of the three special haftarot which precede Tisha b’Av – the ninth day of Av which commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples. On these three Shabbatot, known as the Tlata d’puranuta – the three Shabbatot of Admonition, the prophetic messages are of impending doom. The first of these haftarot comes from the inaugural prophecy of Jeremiah, the prophet of the generation of the destruction of the First Temple. Jeremiah lived in tumultuous times when Judea’s geopolitical situation was uncertain. Which superpower should the beleaguered nation of Judea back? Should it side with Egypt in the south or with the new upcoming superpower to the north, the Babylonians? The official government position favored the Egyptians and to proclaim otherwise was to court official disfavor. These decisions coupled with the nation’s moral and religious failings made national existence precarious.
This may be why Jeremiah exhibited such insecurity when God appointed him as prophet. After his installation as a prophet, God bequeathed to Jeremiah two visions, one of a staff from an almond tree (“shaked”) and the other of a “sir nafuach” often understood to be a pot boiling over. The significance of the first vision has typically been understood to be based on a play on words, the noun for an almond branch being a “shaked” and the verb for being attentive being “shoked”, with a message that God will be attentive in carrying out His will. The second prophecy has been understood to foreshadow the threat from the Babylonians which was looming to the north of Judea.
In a recently published commentary to Jeremiah, Rabbi B. Lau has suggested a different approach to these two visions. He suggests that the vision of the almond staff is one of renewal and life while the second vision – the “sir nafuach” is one of potential destruction. He makes the contrast more prescient by interpreting the word “sir” to mean “thorn bush”. Jeremiah’s vision would then be one of a burning thorn bush blown toward Judea by a wind from the north. The contrast between the almond staff and the thorn bush would offer his audience two alternatives – the choice between life and destruction. (Jeremiah – Goralo shel Hozeh, pp. 40-1)
These choices were not intuitively simple. The prophet was not preaching to the convinced. His message was offensive to those in power and to the public consciousness but it was one of life versus death and it did require wise decisions. This message was a good one for the generation before the destruction of the First Temple but it went unheeded. It is no less pertinent in our day.