Parashat Mattot-Mas'ei

Numbers 30:2–36:13

July 18, 2009 / 26 Tammuz 5769

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 the seventeenth of Tammuz, which marks the day the outer walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Babylonians, and the ninth of 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 weeks of mourning increase in intensity as they 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 the asking of 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 (the Fountain of Living Waters), they hew themselves cracked cisterns, broken 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 on 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 which 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, when the people fall into despair, when they do not have the strength to hold onto hope, God, 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.