July 15, 2006
This week begins the special cycle of three haftarot which precede Tisha b\’Av, known as the \”tlata depuranuta\” (three haftarot of retribution). In the first of the haftarot of this series, Jeremiah is charged with his mission as a prophet and presented with the message he would be responsible for conveying to the people. Since his mandate was to warn the people of their impending doom brought about by their disloyalty to God and immoral behavior, Jeremiah was overcome by trepidations. God reassures him with these words: \”So you, gird up your loins, arise and speak to them all that I command you. Do not break down before them, lest I break you before them.\” (1:17)
This message is striking because it seems to imply a threat as Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provance) explains: \”If you do not fear them and instead have trust in Me (God), I will save you from their hands; but if you are afraid of them, then I will break you even in front of them.\” Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), one of Rashi\’s grandson, who is known to be especially concerned with the pshat or plain meaning of the Biblical text, must have been deeply perturbed by the implications of this verse since it appears to be one of the rare times when he veers from this principle in his interpretation of this phrase: \”Do not fear that I will break you before them, for I will not give you over into their hands.\”
Maimonides explains God\’s message to Jeremiah in terms of his philosophical understanding of the nature of prophecy. He explains that both courage and the ability to anticipate the future are natural faculties present in all people to varying degrees. These qualities are especially pronounced in prophets, and in some prophets these qualities border on the unique, creating individuals with \”no fear and no dread because it was said to them: \’I (God) will be with you\’ (Exodus 3:12) Thus it was said to Jeremiah: \’Be not afraid…. Be not dismayed at them… For, behold, I have made you a fortified city…\’ (Jeremiah 1:17-18)… all of them (the prophets)… were endowed with great courage… Know that the true prophets indubitably grasp speculative matters.\” Maimonides concluded that the prophet has developed his nature and his intellect through philosophical growth in such a way that he is especially attuned to reality and truth and could discern the consequence of actions and events in such a way as to be able to foresee the future. (See Guide to the Perplexed 2:38) Consequently, while Maimonides does not state explicitly how he interprets the threatening element in God\’s command, it might be possible to say that he interprets it in a manner similar to Rashbam who reads it not as a threat but as a means to fortify the prophet.
This \”prophetic\” strength is particularly important for those who discern in their societies behaviors which they view as destructive. They must know that their message will not be easily received and that their message is likely to cause them to suffer the slings of those who are unwilling to heed it. God\’s message to such individuals is to stand firm.