Haftarah Parshat Mattot-Mase
(Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4)
July 3, 2013
25 Tammuz 5773
Every story has a context. The same holds true for prophetic messages. Jeremiah’s prophecy is a hard hitting indictment of his people’s abandonment of God in favor of the idolatrous practices of Israel’s neighbors. To understand this prophecy, it must be put into its historical context. Jeremiah prophesied over a long period. This particular prophecy was delivered either at the end of the rule of Manasseh, a king known for his idolatrous tendencies or at the beginning of the reign of his son, Josiah, who was known for enacting a return to the worship of God. In other words, this prophecy was marked by the wholesale abandonment of God.
Who should take the blame for idolatrous behavior of the people during the reign of these two kings? Jeremiah assigns particular responsibility to the people’s leaders: “The priests never asked themselves: ‘Where is the Lord?’ The guardians of the Teaching ignored Me, the rulers rebelled against Me and the prophets prophesied by Baal and followed what can do no good.” (2:8)
Yair Hoffman identifies the “priests” and the “guardians” with the priesthood (of which Jeremiah was a member) since they were responsible for both the religious and educational life of the people. They did not discern God’s way and as a result were incapable of conveying a credible message to the people. (Jeremiah, Mikra L’Yisrael p. 134) Targum Yonathan (the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets) offered a similar interpretation: “The priests did not say: ‘Let us fear from before God and they did not teach Torah in order to know fear of Me (God) and the king rebelled against My words and the false prophets prophesied after idols and followed what can do no good.’”
Where had these leaders gone wrong? Rabbi Joseph Kara (13th century France) asserts that the priests and guardians of Torah who knew Torah did not show the appropriate appreciation warranted by such knowledge and as a result could not inspire the people. Another commentator, Rabbi Menachem ben Shimon claims that these leaders did not fill their roles as religious leaders. Instead, they followed the example of their flock, becoming estranged from God as well. Rabbi David Kimche asserts that the leaders studied and practiced their Judaism without sincerity. The people felt this insincerity and acted accordingly.
A modern Israeli rabbi, Binyamin Lau identified a different malady in these religious leaders. He claims that their “sin” was a sort of religious narcissism where they were concerned exclusively with their own religious well-being while ignoring the needs of the people. The people quickly got the message and retreated from God. (Yermiyahu – Goralo shel Hozeh, pp. 61-2)
This discussion illustrates the great potential that religious leaders have for both good and bad. In the midst of the period preceding Tisha B’Av, it would be wise for religious leaders to heed this message.
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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