July 19, 2003
This haftarah marks the first of three special haftarot read on the Shabatot which precede Tisha b’av- the day that marks the tragic destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. It also marks the initiation of Jeremiah as a prophet. Jeremiah’s role as a prophet was not a happy one. He was the prophet chosen to deliver to the nation the message of the destruction of Jerusalem. This message did, however, contain a positive message amidst the doom. Jeremiah is told at the outset of his mission: “See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, and to destroy and to overthrow; to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10)
His mission, despite its primary purpose of foreshadowing the destruction of the nation nevertheless still contained a ray of hope. He was charged not only with being an agent of destruction but also an agent of rebuilding. Who is this prophecy talking about? Targum Yonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the Prophets, translates the verse: See, I have set you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, and to destroy and to overthrow, but to the House of Israel to build and to plant.” This explanation distinguishes between the fate of the nations and that of Israel. Rabbi Joseph Kara, the 11th century French exegete, also draws a distinction between the fate found in the first part of the verse and that found in the second. He notes that the destruction is meant for those who sin while “building and planting” are meant for those who repent their sins.
Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish interpreter and statesman, notes in his second explanation that this verse probably refers to both the nation of Israel and the nations. He asserts that Jeremiah will be the agent both for the destruction as well as the rebuilding afterwards. This insight is amplified by Rabbi Meir Leibish Malbim, who notes that the destruction will occur with the purpose of rebuilding. This insight shapes the Jewish outlook on the world. Destruction must never serve as the harbinger of despair. Rather, when it occurs we must see it as an inspiration “to build and plant”, turning the ashes into a “new temple”. This has always been the religious strength of the Jewish tradition. It is a constantly significant message.