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Pinchas 5780-2020

“The Pain of Giving Reproof”
(Updated and revised from Parashat Pinchas 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

On Thursday, July 9th, Jews the world over will observe the fast of Shivah Asar b’Tammuz, the Seventeenth day of Tammuz. The fast marks the day on the Hebrew calendar, in the year 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonian forces made its first breach in the walls of Jerusalem during the siege that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple, on Tisha b’Av, the Ninth of Av.

The period between Shivah Asar b’Tammuz and Tisha b’Av is known as the “Three Weeks.” During these three weeks, rejoicing is limited and the mourning period begins. The communal mourning becomes amplified during the nine days that precede Tisha b’av, and becomes most intense on the fast of Tisha b’Av, which this year will be observed from Wednesday night, July 29th through Thursday night, July 30th.

In order to create the appropriate mournful atmosphere in anticipation of the Temples’ destruction, the sages ordained that the haftarot, the prophetic messages read on the three Shabbatot between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, are prophecies that predict the destruction of the first Temple. These three haftarot that come from the opening chapters of the books of Jeremiah and Isaiah are known as Shalosh d’Puranuta, the three prophecies of calamity. Each prophecy predicts the coming great destruction, and the punishments that would be visited upon the People of Israel due to their sinfulness.

The haftarah for parashat Pinchas consists of the entire first chapter of Jeremiah and continues through the first three verses of Jeremiah 2. The Book of Jeremiah opens with a description of G-d’s selection of Jeremiah as a prophet. The youthful Jeremiah is reluctant to prophesy, claiming that he is unqualified because he is but a lad. G-d touches his mouth, and tells Jeremiah to have no fear, after all, G-d will put His words in to the prophet’s mouth.

The first prophecy of Jeremiah concerns a vision of an almond-wood staff that G-d shows him. The second prophecy is a vision of a boiling caldron that is bubbling over from its northern side. G-d explains that the boiling caldron represents the evil that will burst forth from the north, symbolizing the Babylonian nation, who will emerge from the north, bringing great destruction in their wake.

While the meaning of the prophecy of the burning caldron is quite straightforward, the opening prophecy of the almond-wood staff is opaque and confounding. In Jeremiah 1:11, G-d asks the prophet, ?מָה אַתָּה רֹאֶה יִרְמְיָהוּ   “What do you see, Jeremiah?” The prophet responds, מַקֵּל שָׁקֵד אֲנִי רֹאֶה, “I see a staff made of almond-wood.” Continuing his prophecy, Jeremiah says, (Jeremiah 1:12): וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם אֵלַי, G-d said to me, הֵיטַבְתָּ לִרְאוֹת כִּי שֹׁקֵד אֲנִי עַל דְּבָרִי לַעֲשֹׂתו, “You have seen very well, for I will hasten to fulfill My word!“

The representational message of the almond-wood staff is clearly the message of “speed.” Since the almond is the first tree to blossom in Israel, it symbolizes speed and alacrity–that G-d will hasten to bring the ominous fulfillment of His prophecy of destruction upon the Jewish people. (See the reference to almonds blossoming on Aaron’s staff in Numbers 17:23).

But, the question remains, why does G-d say, הֵיטַבְתָּ לִרְאוֹת, “Jeremiah you have seen very well,” after all, what was so special about Jeremiah being able to identify an almond-wood staff?

May I suggest a possible explanation. A “staff”–מַקֵּל, differs from a “branch” since it is a finished piece of wood. Once the wood is finished, sanded and planed, it is very difficult to distinguish between almond, pine or other varieties of wood. G-d therefore compliments Jeremiah, saying, הֵיטַבְתָּ לִרְאוֹת, “You have seen very well.” By being able to distinguish that the staff is specifically almond, you have enabled Me [G-d] to clarify my message of speed. This was no easy task. You, Jeremiah, are quite talented!

Good and well, but this raises another question, Why didn’t G-d show Jeremiah an  עֵץ שָׁקֵד, an almond wood branch with leaves and bark? That would have made it much easier for Jeremiah to identify the wood’s origin?

Perhaps, that is exactly the point. The message that Jeremiah will deliver to the people is a message of destruction and despair, a message of pain and suffering. Such a bitter message must be difficult for the prophet to deliver. G-d purposely made it difficult for the prophet to identify the almond-tree staff, to teach the prophet that delivering words of calamity must be difficult. As much as G-d needs to bring the punishment upon the Jewish people, He cannot do it with ease. Neither can the prophet who conveys G-d’s message rejoice in being the messenger of G-d delivering the message of calamity. While Jeremiah is destined to be a prophet of doom, he may not be a joyful prophet of doom. Evil will eventually befall the people, but Jeremiah must share their pain. If he does not share their pain, then he is hardly a legitimate prophet.

For us, this is a most profound lesson of life. Whether the issues concern Jews or non-Jews, the land of Israel or other lands and other people in various parts of the world, the message of Israel prevailing over its enemies must be conveyed with care and consideration. Even when we speak of those who seemingly deserve to be punished, for the Jew, the message of suffering can never be a joyous message. Says the book of Proverbs–Mishlei (24:17), בִּנְפֹל אוֹיִבְךָ, אַל תִּשְׂמָח, When your enemy falters, do not rejoice. As much as we would like to rejoice, (and perhaps, even deserve to rejoice), it is never proper to rejoice. It must be difficult for Jews to see even our most deserving enemies suffer.

This attitude of extreme sensitivity to the pain of others is an embodiment of the so-called “bottom line” of Judaism—the unqualified reverence for the sanctity of human life. It is for this same reason that G-d had to stop the ancient Israelites from singing the Hallel, the Songs of Praise of G-d, as the Egyptians drowned at the sea.

This sensitivity is our sacred tradition.

Fortunate are we to be the possessors of these remarkable traditions. The alternative, would be unthinkable.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Thursday, July 9, 2020, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction on Tisha b’Av. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av, that will be observed on Wednesday night and Thursday, July 29th and 30th.

Have a meaningful fast.