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Mattot-Mase 5769

Parshat Mattot-Maase
(Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4)
July 18, 2009
20 Tammuz 5769

Jeremiah is known as the prophet of the destruction, not just because he presents a contemporary picture of the horrific events that led up to the destruction of the southern kingdom, Judea, and the First Temple, but even more so because he presented his people with a picture of the societal degeneration, which according to his estimation, caused this cataclysm. A society founded upon God\’s will could not betray God, could not flaunt its disloyalty, and certainly could not subvert the moral behavior upon which it was supposed to be built. Therefore it is no wonder that Jeremiah uses some pretty harsh language in his prophecy. Still, few of his pronouncements measure up in their seriousness to one jarring remark: \”Though you wash with natron and use much lye, your guilt is ingrained [literally: stained; Hebrew: nihtam] before Me (God) – declared the Lord God.\” (2:22)

This verse, in its context, is meant as a rhetorical admonishment to those who have denied or have tried to hide their wrongdoings from God. (See the following verse.) The rabbinic tradition, however, saw this verse as a contradiction to the idea of teshuva – repentance, namely that a person is capable of repairing and \”recreating\” themselves. Commentators have searched high and low to reconcile this verse with this very important idea. (See my commentary for Parshat Matot-Mas\’ei 5762) Rashi\’s explanation strays from this norm, suggesting a very different association. Commenting on the word \”nihtam\”, Rashi explains: \”This [verse] concerns the sin of the [golden] calf, for this sin remains for ever, as it says: \’On the day that I make an accounting (remember), I will bring them to account for their sins.\” (Ex.. 32:34) – every time, I [God] take an account for their sins, it will include a little for the sin of the golden calf.

Two questions arise from Rashi\’s comment: 1.What is the connection between this verse in Jeremiah and the sin of the golden calf; 2. Why does Rashi want the sin of the golden calf to resonate through the ages?

Rashi\’s association seems to be based on the word \”nihtam\”. Its Hebrew root is \”kaf\”, \”tav\”, \”mem\”. In this verse, its usage is unique and it seems to mean \”stained\”. \”Ketem\”, though, also means \”gold\”. Maybe it comes to mean \”stain\” because a stain is a yellow blemish on a piece of clothing? In any case, we now understand Rashi\’s association. Rashi sees this verse as an indication that the implications of the sin of the golden calf reverberate throughout the ages. (See the opinion of Rabbi Yitzhak on Sanhedrin 102a.)

This idea also may explain the linkage of a series of tragic events which all occurred on Shiva Asar b\’Tammuz, the fast day commemorated last week, as found in the Mishnah Taanit 4:6 – \”On the seventeenth of Tammuz, the tablets of the Ten Commandments were broken, the daily offerings ceased, the city [walls of Jerusalem] were breeched, Apostomus burned the Torah, and he set up an image in the Sanctuary.\” One gets the sense from this Mishnah that the sin of the golden calf (the breaking of the tablets) precipitated the tragedies that followed.

These teachings appear to warn us that there are indeed wrongdoings that can be perpetrated which are not easily erased. Life as individuals and as a community should be lived with a consciousness of this idea. Our tradition takes a poetic tact in its reading of events to raise in us this awareness.

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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