July 26, 2003
This week’s haftarah is the second of the three haftarot of tribulation (shalosh deporanuta) which precede Tisha b’Av, the day that marks the destruction of the first and second Temples. These tragedies happened so long ago, making it difficult for the modern Jew to have a semblance of consciousness of their significance. Our tradition, however, councils us to treat these tragedies as a part of our present lives much the same way that we “live” the redemption from Egypt each year at Pesach. During this three week period, we recount the tragic social and religious disintegration of the Jewish nation that our sages recount as the reason for the tragic ends of the first and second Jewish commonwealths and we renew our awareness that the events of the past could become our present fate if we do not tread carefully. So Jeremiah’s scathing indictment of the Jewish nation in his generation is as relevant today as it was to the Jews of the First Temple period. Not surprisingly, Jeremiah singles out the nation’s leadership, in particular, for his harsh prophecy: “The priests never asked themselves, ‘Where is the Lord?’ The guardians of the Teaching ignored Me (God). The shepherds rebelled against Me. And the prophets prophesied for Baal (an idolatrous deity) and followed (gods) who could do no good.” (Jeremiah 2:8)
Who were these leaders and exactly what were their sins? Targum Yonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the prophetic books, fills in details left undefined in the verse: “The priest did not say: ‘Fear from before God’ and those who teach Torah did not teach [their students] to know fear of the King (God) and they rebelled against My word (God’s word) and false prophets prophesied for false gods and they followed [gods] who could do no good.’ The Targum implies that the sin of the leaders of the people was two-fold: They themselves lacked religious sincerity and integrity and as a consequence of this they failed to impart these qualities to the people. Rashi, in his commentary, adds consequence to this painful assessment when he identifies “the guardians of the Torah” with the Sanhedrin and “the shepherds” with “the kings” of Israel. While Rashi’s identifications are somewhat anachronistic, still we get a sense from the status that he assigns to them that the ramifications of their actions would be grave. Rabbi Joseph Kara, the 12th century French exegete, sees ingratitude as the sin of the leaders: “The priests did not ask: ‘Where is God who brought us out of Egypt?.’ The teachers also forgot the good things that had been done for them. ‘They did not know Me’ – They show their ingratitude by not recognizing that I gave them grain, vine, and oil and so the next generation was totally unaware of God and the good that He does for them.” Kara’s message is that the ingratitude of one generation will cause the disappearance of the next generation.
Rabbi Meir Malbim, the 19th century Romanian commentator and polemicist, sums up the problem: “This verse speaks of the four types of religious leadership: sages, priests, political leaders, and prophets. The priests were responsible for bringing God’s presence but they did not ask for God; the sages, who should have known God because that is the purpose of study did not know God; the kings and princes turned from Me for no good purpose.” (adapted translation)
The leaders of the people cannot allow themselves to be led astray. They must be focused and loyal to God and the tradition. They must be inspired and inspiring, otherwise the fate of the tradition and the Jewish people falls squarely on their shoulders.