Haftarah Parshat Matot-Mas\’ei
July 6, 2002
In this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah paints a rather bleak picture of Israel’s fate. Israel’s disloyalty to God has created a seemingly hopeless situation. No image from the haftarah portrays Israel’s dire state more poignantly than the following verse: “Though you wash yourself with natron (a type of detergent) and use much lye your guilt is ingrained before Me – declares the Lord God” (Jeremiah 2:22) The simple meaning of this verse probably intends to express God’s utter exasperation with the behavior of the people. It seemingly leaves them with no hope for repair. Rashi associates the harshness of this declaration with the sin of the golden calf, a sin which left an indelible stain on Israel’s relationship with God.
The rabbinic tradition is bothered by the implications of this verse. This dilemma is expressed in Sifrei Bamidbar, a midrash from the period of the Mishnah to the book of Numbers: “How can these two verses exist together in the same book?… One verse declares: ‘O Jerusalem, cleanse your heart of wickedness so that you may be saved’ (verse 4:14) while another verse [from our haftarah] states: “Though you cleanse yourself … your guilt is ingrained before Me’ (verse 2:22)” (adapted from Sifrei Bamidbar Piska 42) The discrepancy between these two verses is obvious. One verse offers the hope of redemption through repentance while the verse from our haftarah creates a hopeless situation. Isaac Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish statesman and Bible commentator, cogently expresses the seriousness of the problem: “This verse seems to prevent teshuva (repentance) … and renders the mission and exhortations of the prophets worthless. Furthermore, it makes their prophecies false for they preach the primacy of repentance.” (adapted translation)
Several solutions have been offered to reconcile this contradiction. Among them, the most obvious is that the verse from the haftarah was probably meant to be understood hyperbolically, namely, that Jeremiah wanted to express God’s exasperation so he spoke in an exaggerated fashion. (see Daat Mikra – Jeremiah). Radak, the 12th century Provencal scholar, asserted that this verse spoke of the situation in Jeremiah’s times where repentance would have saved the people from exile but would not have reconciled their relationship with God without some other form of punishment. Abrabanel rejects this explanation and offers his own interpretation: “This verse refers to insincere repentance. The people publicly repented while they privately continued to sin. God, of course, is aware of such behavior and will not abide it.” A variation on this theme is offered by Rabbi Meir Malbim, the 19th century Polish commentator. According to Malbim, people often convince themselves that they are not sinning even though they continue to sin. This is the worst sort of offense because the sinner has convinced him/herself that s/he is pure while, in fact, the opposite is true. This rationalization does not allow a person to affect teshuva because s/he never come to terms with his/her real state of being. The realization of the problem is the first step to reconciliation with God.