July 7, 2007
This Shabbat begins the first of three special Shabbatot which precede Tisha b\’Av. These Shabbatot are known as the \”Tlata d\’puranuta – the Three of Punishment\” because the haftarot for these three Shabbatot speak of impending troubles that will come upon the nation. The tenor of the message in each of these haftarot is a warning that the nation and the people are heading toward their doom because of their disloyalty to God, their immoral behavior, and their injudicious relations with the surrounding powers. The rabbis assigned these particular haftarot to the Shabbatot before Tisha b\’Av to give us the sense that actions and behavior have consequences, for good and for bad.
This same theme was taken up by the opening drashah in a collection of drashot called Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana. Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana is a collection of midrashim, composed in Eretz Yisrael in the 4-5th century C.E., which contains midrashic material for the special liturgical occasions that mark the Jewish year. The opening midrashim of each chapter have a special form known as a petikha (literally, opening) or proem. A petikha, in its form, has a sermonic style. It opens with the interpretation of a verse from outside of the particular liturgical reading and interprets that verse in such a way as to wind its way back at the end to the opening verse of the liturgical reading. Often the opening verse will be obscure, creating literary tension for the reader or listener, who will be curious how the composer will manage to wind his way back to the subject at hand – the Torah reading or haftarah.
In the case of our petikha, it opens with a verse from the book of Isaiah and winds its way back to the opening verse of the haftarah, namely the first verse of the book of Jeremiah, along the way formulating in a creative way the message it wants to leave with its audience: \”Rabbi Abba bar Kahana opened his petikha with the verse: \’Cry aloud. O daughter of Gallim (literally the name of a place, here understood to mean \’ocean waves\’)! Listen, O Laish (name of a place but a word also meaning \’lion\’), Answer her [Aniah], O Anathoth (the city where the Jeremiah was born)\” (Isaiah 10:30) [This sage then goes on to interpret this verse in creative ways.] \’Cry aloud\’ – [means:] raise your voice; \’daughters of Gallim\’ – just as waves stand out in the ocean, so, too, your patriarch stood out in the world; Another interpretation: \’daughters of Gallim\’ – [when read with different vocalization, these consonants render:] \’daughters of golim (exiles)\’, namely, the daughters of those who went into exile. For example: \’daughters of Abraham\’ [who went into exile in Egypt because of famine, \’daughters of Isaac\’ [who went into exile in Gerar]; \’daughters of Jacob\’ [who went in to exile in Padan Aram to escape Esau.]; \’Listen\’ – Hearken to My commandments, hearken to the words of the Torah, hearken to the words of prophecy. And if you do not, \’Laish\’ – a lion will rise up against you. [Who might that be?] This is Nebuchadnezer. \’Answer her [Aniah] – [changing the vocalization of this word, it can mean \’poor\’] – poor in righteous ones, poor in words of the Torah, poor in commandments and good deeds. And if this is the case, then \’Anathoth\’, namely, a man from Anathoth will come and prophecy against you words of rebuke. This is why Scripture needs to come and say the words of this week\’s haftarah which open with the words:] There are the words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth of Benjamin\’ (Jeremiah 1:1) (adapted from Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 13:1; Mandelbaum ed. pp. 224-5)
The point of this midrash is to illustrate that those who did not heed the earlier prophet, Isaiah, and his warnings concerning the behavior of the people, will be faced with the rebuke and punishment dished out in Jeremiah\’s prophecy. The Jewish tradition never ceases to remind us to be aware that all things in life bear consequences. The good life requires vigilant regard for this truth.