Haftarah Parshat Pinchas
June 29, 2002
*Please note: This is the haftarah for Parshat Pinchas in years when this parasha is read after the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz.
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 breaching 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.
God’s first prophecy to Jeremiah is expressed in the following words: ‘The word of the Lord came to me: ‘What do you see, Jeremiah?’ I replied: ‘I see a branch of an almond tree (shaqed).’ The Lord said to me” ‘You have seen right, for I an watchful (shoqed) to bring My word to pass.’” (Jeremiah 1:11-12)
What was the significance of this prophecy to Jeremiah? Obviously, there was more to it than the image of an almond tree? As Maimonides notes: “the words ‘maqqel shaqed’ [a rod of an almond tree] are used because from this image one may go on to the words that follow: ‘Shoqed ani [I watch over]. The parable has nothing to do with the ‘almond tree’ but rather, the meaning of that one word leads us to the other: ‘shaqed’ – ‘shoqed’ (because of their similar consonants).” (adapted from Guide to the Perplexed Part II Chapter 43) The image is intended to convey to Jeremiah that God is cognizant of Israel’s behavior.
Radak, the 12th century Provencal Biblical commentator, explained that what was exceptional about this prophecy was Jeremiah’s ability to discern its meaning. He explains that God showed Jeremiah a vision of an almond staff without leaves and flowers. He nevertheless recognized that it was an almond tree. This was his uniquness. The vision, according to Radak, was a play on the word – “shaqed” meaning “quickly”. In other words, trouble would come upon Israel quickly like an almond tree blossoms more quickly than other trees.
Similarly, Targum Yonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophets, understands from the fact that this almond tree is shaped like a rod that “a king will soon come to cause evil”. This interpretation seems to be shaped by God’s next prophecy to Jeremiah about a seething pot facing north which is understood to infer that Israel would be attacked from the north.
The following midrash is the only interpretation of this prophecy which focuses on the fact that the image contained an almond tree. It connects this prophecy with the future commemoration of the tragic period with which this haftarah is associated: “The almond tree from the time that it sprouts its flowers until its fruit is ripe takes 21 days which is the amount of days from 17th of Tammuz when the walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached to the 9th of Av (Tisha b’av) when the Temple was destroyed. (adapted from Midrash Lamentations Rabbah petichta 23)
May this period of mourning over the anguish of the past usher in days of redemption and peace to the troubled capital of our people.