Haftarah Parshat Mishpatim (Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26)
February 6, 2015 / 27 Shevat 5776
Jeremiah’s prophecy speaks loads about the psychology of human beings. It reads like a message to a particular generation but with a little imagination, his warning resonates for all of us. He speaks directly to a people in troubled times. The Babylonian conquest was close at hand. Anxiety was high. Jeremiah demanded that the people live up to the high moral standards of the Torah. He adjured them to free their Hebrew slaves as obligated by the Torah and warned them of the consequences of their actions if they failed to heed his words: “Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘I made a covenant with your ancestors on the day when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying: At the end of seven years every man shall send forth his Hebrew brother who was sold to you and has served you for six years, they shall go free from you, but your fathers did not listen to me, nor did they incline their ear.”(34:13-14) The people temporarily heeded his message and mended their wrongdoings, by freeing their slaves. All of this was done while the pressure of the Babylonian conquest was still upon them. Once the pressure was off, the people reneged on their promise and returned their former slaves to indentured service. The Babylonian conquest followed in kind.
Notice the pattern. The people were made cognizant of a problematic behavior and its consequences. As a result, they modified their actions. This caused a positive change in their circumstances, which resulted in their return to their previous bad behavior once the pressure was off. In turn, the initial problem returned as well.
Jeremiah’s prophecy, then, is not an antiquated story of a people’s moral wrongs turned into a historical tragedy. It can also be seen as a parable to remind us of something very basic about the human condition since the behavior of Jeremiah’s brethren is common to all of us. It is a reminder that moral self-discipline is basic to arresting moral disaster. It is a reminder how tempting it is to “break the rules” when it seems that there are no repercussions and to obey them when the “heat” is on, only to backslide when the heat is off. Jeremiah reminds us that this cycle must be broken. To believe in God is to work hard to break the cycle and to use God’s help to assist us in walking in His ways.
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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