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Pinhas 5773

Haftarah Parshat Pinhas
(Jeremiah 1:1-2:3)
June 29, 2013
21 Tammuz 5773

On this Shabbat, we read the first of the three special haftarot which precede Tisha b’Av – the “Tlata d’Puranuta – the Three of Rebuke”. The earliest record of these special haftarot is found in a midrashic collection composed in Eretz Yisrael (4-5th century), known as the Pesikta d’Rav Kahana. Unlike other midrashic collections, this book is not organized around a specific book of the Tanach. Instead its chapters relate to special liturgical readings of the year. One of these chapters is dedicated to the special reading for this Shabbat.

One of the special literary forms of this period is a type of midrash known as a peticha – proem in English. In a peticha, the author begins his midrash with a verse not found in the liturgical reading, interpreting it in various ways only to return at the end of midrash to a verse from the liturgical reading. Part of the excitement of a good peticha is found in its unexpected twists and turns. The peticha that I wish to share with you attempts to draw an appropriate message for this period of mourning from the prophet Jeremiah’s (perceived) genealogy.

Our peticha opens with a pithy verse from the book of Proverbs: “A discerning servant will dominate over an embarrassing son and will share in the inheritance with the brothers.” (17:2) The “discerning servant” is midrashically identified with the prophet Jeremiah and the children of Israel are identified with the “embarrassing son” on account of their disloyalty to God. [The midrash is alluding to the fact that Jeremiah is the appropriate figure to channel God’s outrage at Israel’s misbehavior.] Jeremiah is then linked genealogically with Rahab the harlot, the heroine who saved the spies sent by Joshua to scout out Jericho. The midrash notes that Rahab scorned her past behavior to become a righteous woman. (See Joshua chapter 2) It is this behavior which leads the midrash to say about Jeremiah: “The son of the disgraced woman (Jeremiah, grandson of Rahab) who repaired her deeds should come and rebuke the son of the distinguished woman (the children of Israel) who corrupted her deeds.” [The midrash now cites some examples of Rahab’s virtues as against Israel’s sins:] “Regarding Rahab it is written: “And now, take an oath, I ask, by the Lord, that I have done mercy with you” (Joshua 2:12) But with respect to Israel it is written: “Therefore they take an oath in vain.” (Jeremiah 5:2) [Similarly,] with regard to Rahab, it says: “And she brought them (the spies) up to the roof [to save them].” (Joshua 2:6) But regarding Israel, it says: “Those who bow down on roofs to the host of heaven.” (Zephaniah 1:5)” [The peticha returns to interpret the second half of the Proverbs verse with regard to Jeremiah:] “will share in the inheritance with his brothers” – Rabbi Benjamin son of Levi said: This refers to the many prophecies Jeremiah brought to reprove his brothers (his fellow Jews). This is why Jeremiah’s prophecies open not with the singular “word” of Jeremiah but instead opens: “The words of Jeremiah”. (Adapted from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 13:4 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 227-8)

Utilizing tremendous poetic license, this midrash marks an attempt to remind the people of their responsibility to be loyal to God. It does this by associating the prophet of rebuke, Jeremiah, with an ancestor noted for being the model of a repentant soul. In contrast, Israel is noted for its noble lineage and for its tragic fall – All this in order to make Jeremiah’s “words” more biting. Hopefully, we will heed his message.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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