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Mattot-Mase 5766

Parshat Mattot-Masey
(Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4)
July 22, 2006

The end of this week\’s haftarah, the second of the three haftarot of admonition (tlata depuranuta) which precede Tisha b\’Av, contains a scathing indictment of the nation\’s disloyalty to God. The prophet Jeremiah is at a loss to understand the people\’s idolatry and ends his complaint with a mocking, hyperbolic exaggeration of the absurdity of their practices: \”And where are those gods that you have made for yourselves? Let them arise and save you, if they can, in your hour of calamity. For your gods have become, O Judah, as many as your towns!\” (2:28)

Jeremiah\’s sarcasm is hard to miss. He ridicules his fellow countrymen, who now face catastrophe, for putting their trust in deities who are nonentities. He taunts them to call upon their gods who are so multitudinous that it seems that there is not a single city without its own god and still these deities are without the capacity to save them. (See M. Bula, Daat Mikra Jeremiah, p. 28; Y. Hoffman, Mikra L\’Yisrael Jeremiah, p. 146) Jeremiah\’s message is clearly intended to cause his countrymen to turn away from their false ways and return to God.

The Amora (Talmudic sage), Rabbi Shimon ben (Resh) Lakish (3rd century Eretz Yisrael) used this verse to explain how a problem like idol worship progressively infects a society and eventually becomes an inexorable problem leading to its ultimate destruction from moral and religious decay: Said Resh Lakish: \’Woe to those who join house to house, field to field\’ (Isaiah 5:8) – you cause the destruction of the First Temple to touch that of the Second Temple – just as in the time of destruction of the First Temple, \’Zion shall become a plowed field\’ (Jeremiah 26:18), so, too, in the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, \’Zion will become a plowed field\’. \’Till there is no room for anyone to dwell in the land\’. (Isaiah 5:8) What caused the Temple to be destroyed? It was destroyed because there was not a single place left where the people had not set up some form of idolatrous worship. [How did such a situation come about?] At first, people would practice idolatry in a hidden place and when no one tried to prevent them, they took to practicing it in their homes behind closed doors; again when no one said a word, they took to practicing their idolatry openly on the roofs of their homes. When this was ignored, they began to do it on hilltops. Here, too, no one paid attention, so they took to doing it openly in the field. Again, there was no protest, so they began to do it openly on street corners. No one admonished them, so they began to carry out their practices in the middle of the street. When this too was ignored, they practiced their idolatry openly in all of the cities, as it is written: \’ For your gods have become, O Judah, as many as your towns!\’ (Jeremiah 2:28) When even this was ignored, they brashly took to practicing their idolatry in the streets of Jerusalem, until they become so bold as to introduce their idolatry into the very precincts of the Temple. This sin is what sealed the decree. When they were exiled, Jeremiah cried out: \’How lonely sits the city!\’ (Lamentations 1:1) (Adapted and abridged from Eicha Rabbah, Petichta 22, Buber ed. pp. 16-17)

Resh Lakish\’s message urges vigilance to wrong doing. If one ignores problems when they are small then the problem will grow incrementally until the problem is insurmountable. When this happens, there is potential to lose everything.

About This Commentary

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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