February 5, 2005
Jeremiah\’s prophetic message, in this week\’s haftarah, is clear. An infraction of the Torah\’s laws governing the relationships between human beings is an act of disloyalty towards God. The Torah expressly regulated the rules regarding the maximum length of service for Hebrew slaves: \”When you purchase a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; in the seventh year he shall go free.\” (Exodus 21:2) Jeremiah\’s generation abrogated this law forcing Hebrew slaves to serve unlimited terms. The king, Zedekiah, in an attempt to mend this breach, made a covenant with the people to reestablish the observance of this law, and as a consequence, the slaves were freed. The effects of this covenant, however, were short lived and soon after the slaves were returned to their former servitude. Jeremiah railed against the violation of the Torah\’s law and new covenant.
Jeremiah\’s consternation is captured in two particular verses: \”Assuredly, thus said the Lord: \’You would not obey Me [God] and proclaim a release, each to his kinsman and countryman, Lo! I proclaim your release – said the Lord – to the sword, to pestilence to famine; and I will make you a horror to all of the kingdoms of the earth. I will make the men who violated My covenant, who did not fulfill the terms of the covenant which they made before Me, [like] the calf which they cut in two so as to pass between the halves.\” (Jeremiah 34:17-18) The new covenant with God was contracted ritually in much the same way as Abraham\’s covenant with God. (See Genesis 15) This form of consummating a contract was common in the Ancient Near East and was meant to indicate for each of the parties to the contract that failure to fulfill the contract would carry with it the fate of the halved animal. (Sarna, Understanding Genesis, p.126)
Modern scholars have attempted to explain Zedekiah\’s manumission and re-enslavement of the former slaves as factors of the economic and political situations towards the end the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. The traditional commentators, however, focused on what these actions said about the people\’s relationship to God. The covenantal ceremony was the focus for this discussion. Rashi, based on a tradition found in Seder Olam Rabbah (Ratner ed. chapter 26), a rabbinic chronology of the Talmudic period, asserted that the covenant was made against God. Its intent was to punish all those who freed their slaves with the fate of the halved animals. Rabbi Joseph Kara, a younger contemporary of Rashi, disagreed. He asserted that the people made a covenant with God to rectify the violation of the Torah\’s law. When the people returned to their old sinful behavior they had also broke this new covenant. This required that the consequences of the broken covenant fall upon them.
God could not abide a betrayal of the laws of the proper behavior between members of the community since this was such a significant lesson of the redemption from Egypt. It was so fundamental that Jeremiah saw in this sin a primary cause of the destruction of the nation.