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Matot-Masei 5760-2000

“Jeremiah’s Prophecy: An Ancient Message for Contemporary Times”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Once again, this coming week’s parashiot will be doubled, and we will be reading both Parashat Matot and Parashat Masei. Parashat Masei concludes the book of Numbers. Those who will be in synagogue this Shabbat will hear the Torah reader call out: Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek. Let us be strong, let us be strong, and let us be strengthened!

This past Thursday was the Fast of Shiv’ah Asar B’Tammuz, the 17th of Tammuz, which commemorates the day when the Babylonian army made its first breech in the walls of Jerusalem during the siege in 586 B.C.E. This fast marks the beginning of the period known as the “Three Weeks,” the tragic period which precedes Tisha Ba’Av, the Ninth of Av, which marks the destruction of the Temple. During this three week period, it is customary for synagogues throughout the world to read what has come to be known as Sha’losh D’pur’anuta, the three Haftarot (prophetic messages) of destruction, from the Book of Jeremiah.

Since this will be the second Shabbat of the Three Weeks, Jeremiah 2, verses 4-28, 3:4, 4:1-2 is read. The prophet Jeremiah lived both before and after the destruction of the Temple. About two thirds of his prophecies concern destruction, and one third are words of consolation.

I would like to review the ringing messages of Jeremiah with you and elaborate on its contemporary implications.

In Chapter 2, Jeremiah calls out to the Jewish people in the name of G-d, saying: “What unrighteousness have your fathers found in Me, that they have gone far from Me,” says G-d, “and have walked after things of naught, and are become naught.” Jeremiah is distraught over the fact that the people have gone after nothingness and, as a result, have become nothingness–their lives have become meaningless. Furthermore, continues the prophet, “Neither said they: Where is the Lord that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, that led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and pits, through a land of drought, and of the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt?” How, the prophet asks, can the Jews have forgotten so quickly the miraculous exodus from Egypt and the survival of the Jewish people for forty years in the wilderness?

“And I brought you into the land of fruitful fields to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof.” G-d says, I gave you this wonderful land and what did you do to it? “When ye entered,” says the prophet, “ye defiled My land, and made My heritage an abomination.” The Jews basically forgot G-d, says the prophet. “The priest said not: ‘Where is the Lord?’ and they that handle the Torah knew Me not.” Even those involved in Torah learning, says the prophet, only held on to the Torah, they didn’t imbibe it, it didn’t allow the message of the Torah to penetrate and impact on them.

“And the shepherds transgressed against Me, the prophets also prophesied in the name of Baal and walked after things that do not profit.” When the shepherds are lost, asks the prophet, what can we expect of the flock? When the leaders who lead the people go astray, can there be any hope?

Says G-d, “Wherefore I will yet plead with you, and with your children’s children will I plead. For pass over to the isles of the Kittites, and see, and send to Kedar, and consider diligently, and see if there hath been such a thing. Hath a nation changed its gods, which are yet no Gods? But My people hath changed its glory for that which doth not profit.”

The prophet is dismayed by the fact that in the entire history of humankind, nations have been praying to the most senseless “gods,” and yet they remain loyal to them, but my people who worships the true G-d, switches its G-d.

Continues the prophet, “Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye exceedingly amazed, saith the Lord. For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” G-d says, I know that you have switched me. But, if you’re going to switch, at least switch me for something that appears to be useful. Instead you have switched wonderful cisterns that hold water for broken cisterns that leak and have no water. You Jewish people, when you stray from G-d, you pick the most irrational, the most senseless, the most distant ideas to replace G-d.

Asks the prophet, “Is Israel a servant? Is he a home-born slave? Why is he become a prey?” How could the Jewish people have gone so astray? Do they come from some ignoble background that has led them astray?

Says G-d, ” For of old time I have broken thy yoke, and burst thy bands, and thou saidst: ‘I will not transgress.’ Yet, upon every high hill and under every leafy tree thou didst recline, playing the harlot.” I was always there for you, said G-d. I was always there to rescue you. You promised to be loyal to Me, but I always find you unfaithful.

How can it be? says G-d. “Yet I had planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed. How then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto Me?” You come from the most noble background. You are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the descendants of King David and Eliyahu the Prophet, a kingdom of Priests and a Holy People, how could you have gone so astray, how could you forsake Me?

Continues the prophet: “Who says to a tree: ‘Thou art my father, and to a stone: Thou hast brought us forth.’ For they have turned their back unto Me, and not their face. But in the time of their trouble they will say: ‘Arise, and save us!’ But where are thy gods that thou has made thee? Let them arise, if they can save thee in the time of thy trouble. For according to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah.” Since you have so many substitutes for G-d, why don’t you just call on the substitutes to help you in your time of trouble? Suddenly in the foxhole you rediscover G-d? It doesn’t work that way.

These are the words of G-d conveyed by the prophet Jeremiah over 2,500 years ago. Could this prophesy be about our generation? Could Jeremiah be directing his words to us, the wealthiest and most highly educated generation of Jews in the history of the world? To us, the generation of opportunity, the Jews of the Golden Era, of the 20th and 21st centuries…and yet the generation of the greatest Jewish apostacy in all of Jewish history, the generation of greatest illiteracy in all of Jewish history. How could this be?

The message of Jeremiah is loud and clear. It speaks to us from yesterday as if it were speaking to us today. Let us take the words of Jeremiah to heart. Let us give G-d a chance.

In Chapter 4 of this week’s Haftorah, the prophet Jeremiah concludes his message to the Jewish people, pleading with them, beseeching them: “If thou wilt return O Israel saith the Lord, yea, return unto Me, and if thou wilt put away thy detestable things out of My sight, and wilt not waver, and wilt swear as the Lord liveth in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then shall the nations bless themselves by Him and in Him shall they glory.” If the Jewish people only recognize G-d as the Father and Guide, then all humanity will recognize G-d, and this recognition will bring about the ultimate spiritual regeneration of all of humankind. It is now in our hands. Let us, during these “Three Weeks,” reaffirm our commitment to Gd. Let us spare the world and ourselves any more sorrow and eliminate any reason to mourn.

May you be blessed.