(Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3)
July 11, 2009
19 Tammuz 5769
This Shabbat is the first of three Shabbatot that follow the Seventeenth of Tammuz (Shiva Asar b\’Tammuz). This is a fast day which commemorates the Babylonian breeching of the walls of Jerusalem in the First Temple period, and commences a three week period of mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, the first time at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second time at the hands of the Romans in 73 CE.
The special haftarah for this Shabbat hails from the opening chapter of the book of Jeremiah, the prophet of the destruction. This chapter recounts not only Jeremiah\’s investiture by God as a prophet but also lays the groundwork for the prophetic understanding of these calamities. For the prophets, these tragic events were brought about by the people\’s disloyalty to God and consequent lapses in their moral and religious behavior. Jeremiah states this explicitly: \”For I am summoning all the peoples of the north, declares the Lord. They shall come and each set up a throne before the gates of Jerusalem, against its walls roundabout, and against all the towns of Judah. And I will argue My case against them for all their wickedness: They have forsaken Me and sacrificed to other gods and worshipped the work of their hands\” (1:15-16)
The sages, apparently, did not accept this approach to these tragedies without serious reservations, challenging it, as the following midrash indicates: O God, heathens have entered Your domain; defiled Your Holy Temple (Ps. 79:1): \”Them, You permitted to enter! But didn\’t You say in Your Torah: Any outsider who encroaches [upon the Sanctuary] shall be put to death (Num. 1:51)? And not only the outsider; even when the two sons of Aaron, who were holy men, came into the sanctuary to bring offerings, [and even] they were consumed by fire. Likewise Uzziah [the king]; did he not come into the sanctuary for Your honor? For what was in his hand? Was it not incense to burn before You? And he exited a leper. What\’s more, the very earth quaked. But these un-circumcised ones – them You permitted to come [unscathed] into the sanctuary!\” God replied to Asaph: \”The others came into it without permission, therefore I smote them. But these came into it with permission. I even commanded them to do so, as it says: \’For I am summoning all the peoples of the north, declares the Lord. They shall come and each set up a throne before the gates of Jerusalem, against its walls roundabout, and against all the towns of Judah.\’ (Jer. 1:15) The Holy One, blessed be He, said further to Asaph: \’What did these heathens do? They made Jerusalem into heaps. But I shall set it up anew, as is said: \”For brass I will bring gold, and for iron I will bring silver, etc.\” (Isa. 60:17). Asaph asked God: \”Master of the universe, the heaps You will renew, but Your children who were slain, what of them? \’The dead bodies of Your servants have they given to be food for the fowls of heaven, the flesh of Your saints to the beasts of the earth\’\” (Ps. 79:2). But were they saints? Behold, Scripture says of them: They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbor\’s wife (Jer. 5:8). Asaph meant, however, that once judgment was executed upon them, they became saints. Thus Scripture says: Then it shall be, if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to the measure of his wickedness, but goes on directly: \”Lest . . . your brother should be dishonored before your eyes\” (Deut. 25:2-3) That is, he was called a wicked man to begin with, but after he was beaten, behold, he is again thy brother. (Midrash Tehillim 79:4 Buber ed. p. 360)
This midrash asks two serious questions regarding Jeremiah\’s prophecy: 1. why does God punish some for the transgression of entering the Sanctuary for what appears to be good purposes while those who came to destroy it remain unpunished; 2. since God brought punishment upon the people for grievous sins, how could they ever be considered righteous? Its answers, though, do not stray too far from classical Biblical theology. The nations who brought about the destruction of the Temple were \”invited\”. They were God\’s agents. God\’s punishment of His people was not just punitive; it was also redemptive and cleansing.
We are much more comfortable with the midrash\’s questions than we are with the particulars of its conclusions. However, even the conclusions raised here give rise to certain religious truths which are important to us. God is particularly interested in the righteous conduct of His people. He seeks a just world and His ultimate desire is that even those who have strayed from His ways come under His umbrella.