Parashat Mattot-Maseei

Numbers 30:2–36:13‎
July 21, 2012 / 2 Av 5772‎

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Mychal B. Springer, Director of the ‎Center for Pastoral Education and Helen Fried Kirshblum Goldstein Chair in ‎Professional and Pastoral Skills, JTS.

We are now in the period known as the Three Weeks: the weeks between the fast of 17 Tammuz, which marks the day the outer walls of Jerusalem were breached by ‎the Babylonians, and 9 Av, when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple. These weeks ‎are the low point of the year. In a dramatic reversal of the ordinary mourning process, ‎which begins in its starkest intensity and lifts over time as the mourners are comforted, ‎these are weeks of increasing mourning that move, inevitably, to the destruction of ‎God's house and the banishment of the People into exile. The prophetic readings drive ‎home that we have brought this horrible tragedy on ourselves. This week's haftarah, ‎from chapter 2 of Jeremiah, is the second of three haftarot of affliction. Jeremiah ‎chastises the People for having strayed from God and God's Torah. The haftarah ‎begins:‎

Hear the word of the Eternal, O House of Jacob and all the clans of the House ‎of Israel.‎

Thus says the Eternal One: What wrong did your ancestors find in Me, that they ‎moved away from Me, and went after empty things (hahevel) and themselves ‎became empty (va'yehbalu)? (Jer. 2:4–5)‎

The destruction is framed as Israel's betrayal of God. Though Israel had once been as ‎loving as a bride, she has now turned on God. These verses convey God's pain at ‎having been rejected. In asking the question "Why?" it sounds as if God is trying to ‎make sense of the rupture. How could the Holy One not have been enough for Israel? ‎There can be no good answer.‎

So it is curious to pause over God's competition. Israel betrayed God and "went after ‎empty things (hahevel)." The word hevel famously opens the book of Ecclesiastes:‎

Havel havalim amar kohelet (Utter futility! said Kohelet)
Havel havalim hakol havel (Utter futility! All is futile!)‎

When we look at God's complaint in this way, we wonder what it was that made the ‎Israelites give up. In going after empty things, they gave into the fear that this life is ‎futile. Even with God promising them that God would be with them, the Israelites could ‎not hold on to hope. In the context of Ecclesiastes, we can understand the challenge ‎of holding on to hope in the face of the realities of the world around us. But in the ‎context of Jeremiah, this turning toward hahevel is cause for severest punishment.‎

Further along in our haftarah, God says:‎

For My people have done a double wrong:
they have forsaken Me,
the Fountain of Living Waters,
and have hewn for themselves cisterns,
cracked cisterns that cannot hold water. (Jer. 2:13)‎

If only they could have stayed true to God, they would have had access to mekor ‎mayim hayyim (the Fountain of Living Waters). I hear the echoes of the Garden of ‎Eden and its Tree of Life. Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden, because it ‎would be too dangerous to let them remain after they had eaten from the fruit of the ‎Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.‎

And the Lord God said, ‎

Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he ‎should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live ‎forever! (Gen. 3:22)‎

In Genesis, God is the one who banishes Adam and Eve in order to keep a separation ‎between the source of life and humanity. The separation, though painful, is necessary. ‎In Jeremiah, it is the People who keep themselves away. Instead of accessing mekor ‎mayim hayyim, they hew themselves cracked cisterns symbols of the broken world in ‎which we live.‎

God asks, what fault did the People find with me? Perhaps they did not find any fault. ‎Perhaps the moving away was not a willful act. Perhaps it was merely the gravitational ‎pull of the brokenness of this world that made it impossible to stay connected to God's ‎promise of redemption.‎

A midrash in Eichah Rabbati opens the door to this reenvisioning of the drama ‎between God and Israel. When God sees that the Temple has been destroyed, God ‎weeps, saying to the ministering angels and Jeremiah:‎

‎"Woe is Me for My house! My children, where are you? My priests, where are ‎you? My lovers, where are you? What shall I do with you, seeing that I warned ‎you but you did not repent?" The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Jeremiah, "I ‎am now like a man who had an only son, for whom he prepared a marriage-‎canopy, but he died under it. Feelest thou no anguish for Me and My children? ‎Go, summon Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Moses from their sepulchres, for ‎they know how to weep."‎

The power of this moment is that God is overwhelmed by the reality of the People's ‎banishment. Although the theology of reward and punishment is referenced here, the ‎midrash compels us to recognize that God is bereft. God is angry with Jeremiah for not ‎weeping, for not fully grasping the horror God feels in the wake of the destruction. God ‎does not feel consoled by the idea that they brought this upon themselves. All God ‎wants is for someone to heighten God's compassion, which is why God sends ‎Jeremiah to bring Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses—the great ancestors who know ‎how to weep. So Jeremiah brings the ancestors and each, in turn, argues with God ‎about why Israel deserves God's mercy (rahamim). Each one makes persuasive ‎arguments, but God does not seem moved. Suddenly, Rachel jumps before God and ‎makes her case. Rachel describes her wedding night, on which she and Jacob had ‎arranged a special sign between them, to make certain that Laban, her father, would ‎not trick them by substituting Leah as Jacob's bride. But Rachel has compassion for ‎Leah and tells her the sign—and even lies under the bed so that Jacob will hear her ‎voice speaking with him and be tricked into thinking that he is lying with Rachel. ‎Rachel says:‎

And if I, a creature of flesh and blood, formed of dust and ashes, was not ‎envious of my rival and did not expose her to shame and contempt, why ‎shouldest Thou, a King Who liveth eternally and art merciful, be jealous of ‎idolatry in which there is no reality (she'eyn ba mamash), and exile my children ‎and let them be slain by the sword, and their enemies have done with them as ‎they wished? (Eichah Rabbati 24)‎

God hears Rachel's words and flows with compassion for the People, which prompts ‎God to promise that they will be allowed to return.‎

What is it about Rachel's argument that allows God's mercy to flow? Rachel ‎challenges God by saying that it is more important to protect Israel from shame, just as ‎she protected Leah, than to act out of jealousy. Rachel is bold in her language as she ‎speaks about Israel having gone astray. In referring to Israel's sin of idolatry, Rachel ‎says, "She'eyn ba mamash," which doesn't have any real substance. Perhaps there is ‎an echo here of the hevel (emptiness) referred to in our haftarah. I choose to ‎understand this as Rachel saying that when the People fall into despair, when they do ‎not have the strength to hold onto hope, God should have compassion. Do not shame ‎them further, but pick them up and help them to draw near to You, the Source of Hope, ‎the Fountain of the Living Waters.‎

This is a world in which we recognize our separation from God, and we encounter the ‎brokenness symbolized in the cisterns. But as we go through this period of mourning, ‎we can be consoled with the knowledge that God weeps over our separation, and has ‎promised that "there is hope for your future" (Jer. 31:17).‎


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a ‎generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.‎