Haftarah Parshat Pinhas
(Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:4)
July 3, 2010
21 Tammuz 5770
Haftarah Commentary for Parshat Pinhas (Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:4)
This Shabbat marks the first of three Shabbatot where we mourn the two times that Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. In rabbinic Aramaic, these Shabbatot are known as the \”tlata d\’puranuta\” – the \”three [Shabbatot] of the destruction\”. The haftarot for the first two of these Shabbatot are taken from the prophet Jeremiah, who is considered the prophet of the destruction, while the third comes from the opening chapter of Isaiah. The association of Jeremiah with the destruction of Jerusalem is ubiquitous since most of the message of his prophetic book deals with the issues of this tragedy. This may explain why Jeremiah\’s inaugural prophecy was chosen for this first Shabbat even though the crux of its storyline focuses on his initiation rather than on the destruction of Jerusalem.
This anomaly may explain why the Talmudic sages searched for creative ways to link this chapter to messages associated with this tragic event. In the Pesikta deRav Kahana, a midrash composed in Eretz Yisrael during the Talmudic period (4-5th century), an entire chapter of midrash is devoted to this special haftarah. However, the reader will note two things about this chapter of midrash: 1. Jeremiah\’s name receives inordinate attention; 2. Despite the fact that the first chapter of Jeremiah does not deal with the destruction of Jerusalem at all, the focus of the chapter of midrash is almost exclusively on this theme.
The prophet\’s name, \’Jeremiah\’, provides fertile material for this venture. In the following midrash, Talmudic sages employ a method of midrash called \’notarikon\’, where a larger word is cut up into smaller words which are seen as its component parts: \”\’The words of Jeremiah\’ (Jeremiah 1:1) – [Understand the name as meaning:] \’ram y-ah\’ – \’the Lord went up ten \’ (since the consonants of this name can be read this way – yod = 10, resh mem = went up, yod heh = one of God\’s names) [The midrash now comes to explain exactly what this means.] In ten stages, God\’s Presence traveled [upward]: 1. from cherub to cherub; 2. from cherub to the opening of the Temple; 3. from the opening of the Temple building to the cherubs; 4. from the cherubs to the eastern gate of the sanctuary; 5. from the eastern gate to the temple courtyard; 6. from the temple courtyard to the altar; 7. from the altar to the roof; 8. from the roof to the city wall; 9. from the city wall to the city; 10. from the city wall to the Mount of Olives. [How are we to understand this process?] The sages drew a parable: To what can this be compared? To a king who was departing his palace. He kissed the walls and embraced the columns and said: \’May you remain whole, my house, may you remain whole, my palace.\’ So, too, God\’s Presence kissed the walls of the Temple and caressed its columns and said: \’May you remain whole, My house, may you remain whole, My palace.\’ Said Rabbi Yochanan, \’For three and a half years, God\’s Presence stayed on the Mount of Olives, declaring three times a day, \’Return wandering children, I shall heal your backslidings\’ (Jeremiah 3:22) But when they did not repent, God\’s Presence began to fly up in the air, reciting this verse: \’I will go and return to My place until they confess their guilt and seek My face, in their trouble they will seek Me earnestly.\’ (Hosea 5:15)\” (adapted from Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 11:11 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 234-5)
Jeremiah\’s name is used by this midrash to express the severity of God\’s anguish. He must leave His house, which He truly adores, hoping against hope that His home will remain intact. His departure, according to this midrash, is the result of His children\’s sinfulness and their inability or lack of desire to mend their ways and their relationship with God. God yearns for this reconciliation and His return home, but the onus for this reunion is in the hands of God\’s children.
The author of this midrash does not assess the geo-political events which precipitated Jerusalem\’s fall to the Babylonians or later on to the Romans. Instead, he has turned the story into a \”morality play\”, urging God\’s people to be aware of the destructive potential of ungodly behavior. Such introspection is a valuable lesson for Jew and non-Jew alike.