July 14, 2001
The story of Jeremiah’s call to prophecy, found in the haftarah, marks the beginning of a three week period between the fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha b’Av. This period which marks the time between the breeching of the walls of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple is known as “bein ha-metzarim” – between the straits. The haftarot for these three weeks stress the themes of national introspection and destruction.
How was Jeremiah chosen for his role as prophet? What made him the right person for the monumental task of warning the people of their impending destruction? God said to him: “Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
This introduction to prophecy is unique. Could it be that Jeremiah merited being predestined to prophecy and Moses did not? Also, what does this statement tell us about prophecy? Is a prophet merely a conduit for God’s words or is a prophet someone who has developed into a person worthy of presenting God’s message. In short, is prophecy a matter of nature or of nurture?
Rashi understood the words of this calling as an indication that prophets are selected from the beginning of creation. Prophets are born not made.
Maimonides however sees this verse within the broader context of Jeremiah’s mission. Jeremiah, the prophet of national destruction, was reluctant to take on the mantle of prophecy. Like other prophets before him, he stressed to God his inadequacy to fulfill the required responsibilities. He knew that prophets required life experience, wisdom and training. Maimonides saw this statement, then, as a means for God to comfort Jeremiah and ease him into his difficult task. Jeremiah had a natural proclivity for the task ahead of him, but it was his upbringing and training which allowed his native talents to blossom into the prophetic role. (Guide to the Perplexed part 2 chapter 32)
What made Jeremiah a prophet? It was his ability to see the world through God’s prism. The blessing of his God-given gifts and his developing of those talents gave him the tools and discernment to try “to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow,” but equally important, “to build and to plant”. (verse 10)
May the insights of Jeremiah’s own struggles give us the strength to do our own personal and national repairs in this season of introspection.
*Note: In many humashim, this haftarah is positioned as the haftarah for Parshat Mattot. It serves as the haftarah for Parshat Pinchas in years when this parasha is read before the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz.
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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