Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Parshiyot Matot-Masei

The haftarah we read this week, a selection chosen from the second perek of Sefer Yirmiyahu, is a direct continuation of last week’s haftarah, taken from the first chapter of that book. In this selection, however, Yirmiyahu is no longer conversing with Hashem but is delivering a harsh message to the people as he begins the mission upon which God had sent him. Picking up on the theme he began in the last perek, Yirmiyahu condemns the nation for their ingratitude. In order to accentuate the extent of Israel’s sin, the navi reviews the kindnesses Hashem had done for them over the many years. In doing so, Yirmiyahu mentions the exodus from Egypt, the wonders wrought for them during their sojourn in the desert and God’s gift of His bountiful and fruitful land.

The prophet then contrasts God’s faithFULness to Israel with Israel’s faithLESSness to God. The nation’s sins were not limited to simply ignoring Hashem’s will but, even worse, their abandonment of His worship. In their turning to other powers, Israel proved that what God had done for them was not enough for them and, by seeking alternatives to God, they indicated that the Al-mighty was not All Mighty. By doing so, Yirmiyahu adds, the behavior of His chosen nation was far worse than other nations who remain faithful to their false gods.

Significantly, the navi tempers his harsh words by suggesting that Israel’s infidelity to Hashem was less a result of rebelliousness and more one of confusion and error. He especially points to the leadership of the nation as those who were guilty of leading the people astray The navi criticizes the kohanim who did not search for God, the Torah scholars who did not seek to understand Hashem’s ways, the leaders who openly rebelled against God, and the (false) prophets who prophesied in the name of Ba’al.

Given the behavior of these role models, God understands that the nation should not shoulder the entire guilt for their sins. For this reason, He tells Israel: “Od ariv it’chem,” “I will yet contend with you,” the implication being that God would not yet punish the people but would “contend,” argue, debate with the hope of convincing the nation to return and avoid punishment. And this, indeed, was the very mission of Yirmiyahu. He was not only the “prophet of doom” that we often think him to be, but also the “prophet of hope.” This would illuminate God’s words to Yirmiyahu in the last perek where the prophet is told that his job would be “to uproot and smash” but also “to build and to plant.”

God sends prophets to try to bring His children back to Him. Declaring a message of hope to a sinful nation (as Yirmiyahu did when the enemy had already built ramparts up to the wall of Yerushalayim!) is an essential part of the prophet’s mission. Hashem desires return and not ruin.

And it was that message of hope that helped us survive the centuries of ruin until we could finally return home.

By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler

Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.